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when vs happen
(Advanced Discussion)

In a message dated 10/18/2005 2:17:11 PM Pacific Daylight Time, writes:

I know that I use the sign HAPPEN rather than WHEN at times, and I know when to use each, but I can't explain why I do to my students.  Could you help me out?
I think that I tend to use WHEN when I am being time specific and HAPPEN for a more general time period, but I can't figure that out for sure.


Use "HAPPEN" for English meanings similar to: occur, take place, befall, materialize, result, come about.  HAPPEN is a way of stating "something is being done," "something will be done," or "something was done."

Notice also the similarity between the sign HAPPEN and the initialized concepts: "CHANCE" and "place a BET."

Use "HAPPEN" for English phrases similar to, "When I met her I fell in love." The reason is that in such a sentence the word "when" is an abreviated form of the phrase "when it so happened."  Here is a guideline:  If you could extend that sentece to say, "When it so happened that I fell in love with her..." then it is a safe bet to use the sign HAPPEN to express the meaning.

Also use "HAPPEN" for statements like, "When you go, I want you to take your brother."
That is because what you are really saying is, "When such and such happens, I want you to take your brother."

So we can see that "HAPPEN" is a statement of occurance.  Occurances can become references for time--but only in context.  Which is to say, HAPPEN is not an indicator of time unless those involved in the conversation have a mutual understanding that a certain occurance coincides with a particular clock or calendar time.  HAPPEN DAD ARRIVE HOME, WE GO RESTAURANT.  If everyone in the house knows Dad gets home at 5:30, then there would be no need for anyone to ask "WHEN?"

HAPPEN is expressed as either a statement or a question.
If a person signs "HAPPEN-(whq) [done with a furrowed brow and a forward thrust of the head] it can be interpreted as "What happened?"

The sign WHEN is used to seek information regarding clock or calendar time. 

The sign "WHEN" is almost always expressed as a question: WHEN-"whq" [done with a furrowed brow].

It is occasionally used to make statements like "I don't-KNOW WHEN-(neutral)," but could easily be replaced by, "I don't-KNOW TIME" or "I don't-KNOW DAY"--so there is little need for a "statement" form of the sign "WHEN." 

Understand though that language is ever changing.  It is my observation that more and more ASL users are using the sign WHEN as a statement similar to the way HAPPEN is used.  A person could say that this is an erroneous usage. But it will only be an "error" until enough people use it in that manner for a long enough period of time--at that point the new usage will be "standard."




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All material copyright 1996 by Dr. William Vicars