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American Sign Language Grammar:  (2)

Grammar links:  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 Also see: Inflection

In a message dated 10/25/2001 12:09:24 AM Central Daylight Time, a student writes:

Hello I'm in my first semester of sign language and I'm majoring in special education which sign language is not required yet I feel is needed for my field so I have been doing well except I am having problems with sentence structure. For example, I understand simple things such as "cafeteria where?" translates into English as "Where is the cafeteria?" But that is easy. I'm having difficulty translating. For instance on my quiz our teacher signed "College me go-to High School me not go to." He wants us to know it means "i am in college," not in High school. Why am I having such a problem with this kind of translation is their any suggestions on how I can learn this? 

Thanks Leah



A couple of thoughts in response to your question. First of all, your instructor is most likely creating questions for his quizzes or lessons based on available vocabulary. Available vocabulary consists of those signs and phrases that he (or she) has taught you up to the point of the quiz.

If I wanted to indicate, "I am in college, not in high school," I would sign, "HS FINISH, NOW COLLEGE." Depending on the circumstance I might put in a personal pronoun or two, for example, "ME HS FINISH, NOW COLLEGE ME" or even, "HS FINISH ME, NOW COLLEGE," or "HS FINISH, COLLEGE NOW ME." Of course I would include appropriate non-manual markers.

Let's talk "real life" for a minute. Think when you would actually use a sentence like, "I am in college, not in high school." Typically you would use that sentence only in response to someone else's question of "So, how's high school going?" or "Do you go to Central High?" In real life you would typically reply "I'm in college." "I graduated last year." Or "I'm at Podunk State U. now." In ASL you'd sign "I COLLEGE I" or "PSU I"-while nodding affirmatively. You might sign, "GRADUATE FINISH, COLLEGE NOW."

Now, as far as the sentence on your quiz:

Signed out of context, that sentence could, of course, be interpreted a number of ways.

For example:
"I didn't attend high school but I'm attending college."
"I went to the college but I didn't go to the high school."
"I'm going to college, I am not going to high school."
"I'm attending college, not high school."

Now, if I wanted to show use the above signs and end up with the meaning of, "I am in college, not in high school," I would sign:

"ME COLLEGE, NOT HS" or "COLLEGE ME-(head nod), NOT HS-(head shake)."
"ME NOT HS-(negative headshake), ME COLLEGE-(affirmative head nod)."

Now, you need to be aware, ("beware?") there are many, many teachers of ASL who have not studied the linguistics of ASL. Some of them have fallen into the trap of believing that ASL sentences must be stated as "COLLEGE ME GO-TO," rather than "ME GO-TO COLLEGE."  Which is to say, they think that to sign ASL you must always use the object as the topic of your sentence and then make a comment about it. (This is known as topicalization.)

I just walked out in the hall and interviewed four Deaf, native-level signers (Larry Smith, Randal King, Sheri Youens, and Jake Nunez) and asked them to role play. I told them to pretend they recently met me. 

I asked Sheri, "LAMAR HS, YOU JUNIOR, (bodyshift "or") SENIOR?" She replied, "ME GRADUATE-SCHOOL." I asked the same question to Randal, he replied with deadpan seriousness but a twinkle in his eye, "YES." After I told him "FINISH! (come-on) TRUE ANSWER WHAT?" He replied, "I COLLEGE, LAMAR." 

I asked Jake, "SCHOOL (bodyshift "or") WORK, DO-DO YOU?"
He replied, "BUM." 
Bill:  "COME-ON! #DO-DO?"

I asked Larry the same question, "SCHOOL (bodyshift "or") WORK, #DO-DO YOU?"
He replied, "I COLLEGE."

Note, all four of them are educated d/Deaf individuals (culturally as well as physically). All four of them attended Gallaudet and are members are the Deaf Community. I initiated the conversation using ASL (not contact language or Signed English).

Their initial gut answer was to establish themselves as the topic of their reply and "college" as part of the predicate or "comment" about the topic. This follows ASL grammar of "subject--predicate" which falls under the general umbrella of "topic-comment" grammar.

Please note, if you add the "GO-TO" sign, "ME GO-TO COLLEGE" it is still ASL, it is still a topic (ME) comment (GO-TO COLLEGE) grammar structure. You should also note that in this example (ME GO-TO COLLEGE) you also happen to be using "subject-verb-object" (SVO) sentence structure. Just because a sentence is "subject-verb-object" doesn't mean that it is not ASL. 

"Subject-verb-object" sentences work especially well in ASL when you are dealing with transitive verbs.
(Transitive verbs are verbs that have an object.)

Suppose a deaf couple is at home and the husband gets his coat on. 
The wife might sign, "#DO-DO?" or "WHERE GO?"
The husband would reply, "STORE."

[In Deaf Culture though, the wife wouldn't have to ask, the husband would take the initiative and tell the wife, "I GO STORE" or "I GO STORE NEED ANYTHING?" (Deaf people keep other deaf people informed, whether it be a jaunt to the store, a trip to the bathroom, or who is calling on the TTY.)  No, I'm not saying that at home I inform my wife every time I go to the bathroom.  My point is that if a deaf person is part of a group at a party, it is very casual and normal to sign "excuse, bathroom" as a polite way of letting others know why you are leaving the group when that is indeed the intended destination. Of course, heh, at a deaf party it may take a half hour or more just to cross the room to get to the bathroom due to all of the side conversations you are likely to get drawn into on the way.]

There is a "chance" he will sign "STORE ME GO," but I'd bet my money elsewhere. Suppose, if I asked him for an interview and asked him "HOW SIGN SENTENCE 'I am going to the store,' ASL, A-S-L?" After a brief pause would most likely reply "STORE ME GO." He answers that way not because it feels natural or because he really signs that way to his wife, but because he is deliberately choosing to demonstrate the phase in a manner that looks least like English.

STORE ME GO and ME GO STORE are both ASL. No doubt. The difference is that "STORE ME GO" looks less like English and therefore by default is assumed to be "more" ASL than ME GO STORE regardless of the fact that many, many d/Deaf people (in my many years of observation, interaction, videotaping, and interviewing) typically sign ME GO STORE or ME GO COLLEGE.

Simple sentences that use intransitive verbs also begin with the subject. For example, you'd sign "SHE FUNNY," or "GIRL FUNNY" You wouldn't sign "FUNNY GIRL." You might be thinking, "But 'funny' is not a verb, it is an adjective." You are right, but it is part of a predicate that if expressed in English would include the "be" verb "is." For example, "The girl is funny."

Now, let's back up a bit and address your situation on the quiz with the instructor. Classroom language and real world language are different. Your job as a student is to figure out what that instructor intends his "constrained-vocabulary constructs" to mean. By "constrained-vocabulary constructs" I mean the sentences that he or she created out of the limited number of signs that you have learned in class so far. It is really quite a challenge to come up with twenty decent ASL sentences using only a few chapters worth of vocabulary.

I suggest you take a deep breath and relax about this whole situation. 
Decide that your instructor has a certain amount of knowledge-and your job is to learn what you can from him or her. You want two things. A good grade and a good understanding of ASL.

To get the good grade:
*Play your teacher's game
*Ask lots of questions
*Seek opportunities to do extra-credit assignments
*Read ahead
*Request "practice quizzes" or "mock finals"
*Request make up quizzes
*Ask him to consider "throwing out" (removing from grading consideration) any questions on quizzes that were missed by more than 80% of the class

To develop a good understanding of ASL:
* Hang out with d/Deaf people
* Read widely from as many ASL related books as you can
* Watch as many ASL instructional videos as you can
* Learn to think in ASL
* Practice your fingerspelling as you walk or stand in line
* Ask for "several" examples
* Instead of asking, "How do you sign _____," ask "Would you please show me the various ways to sign _____" [SHOW-(to me) DIFFERENT++ HOW SIGN _ _ _ _ ]

Good luck in your studies.

DrVicars: Let's discuss indexing, personal pronouns, and

DrVicars: First off, indexing: It is when you point your index at a person who is or isn't in the
signing area. Sometimes we call that present referent or absent referent.

DrVicars: If the person is there, you can just point at him to mean "HE"

DrVicars: If the person is not there, if you have identified him by spelling his name or some other
method of identification, (like a "name sign"), then you can "index" him to a point in space. Once
you have set up a referent, you can refer back to that same point each time you want to talk
about that person.

DrVicars: Need clarification on that ?

DrVicars: Now lets talk about personal pronouns.

The simplest way is to just point. If I am talking to you and want to say "YOU" then I point. To
pluralize a personal pronoun, you sweep it. For example the concept of "THEY." I would point
slightly off to the right and sweep it more to the right. For "YOU ALL" I would point slightly to
the left and sweep to slightly to the right, (crossing my sight line).

DrVicars: Of course if the people are present then you can simply point to them. The more
people there are the bigger the sweep. Any questions about personal pronouns?

Art: Does the sweep dip?

DrVicars: It stays on a horizontal plane most of the time. If I am talking about a group that is
organized vertically then I will sign (sweep) from top to bottom in an vertical motion. But that is

DrVicars: Okay now let's see how this all ties into the principle of "directionality."

Suppose I index BOB on my right and FRED on my left. Then I sign "GIVE-TO" from near
my body to the place where I indexed Bob. That means I give to Bob.

If I sign GIVE TO starting the movement from the place off to the right and move it to the left it
means Bob gave to Fred.
If I sign starting from off to the left and bring the sign GIVE TO toward my body what would it

Sandy: "Fred give to me?"

DrVicars: Right.

Sandy: How do you establish tense at that point?

DrVicars: Tense would be established before signing the rest of the sentence. I would say,
"YESTERDAY ME-GIVE-TO B-0-B" The fingerspelling of BOB would be immediately after
the ME-GIVE-TO and I would spell B-O-B slightly more to the right than normal. That way I
wouldn't need to point to Bob. However there are three or four other acceptable ways to sign
the above sentence. You could establish Bob then indicate that yesterday you gave it to him,

Lii: Can tense be done at end of sentence, or is that confusing?

DrVicars: That is confusing--I don't recommend it. I can however give you an example of
"appropriately" using a time sign at the end of a sentence. Suppose I'm talking with a friend
about a problem that occurred yesterday and I sign: TRY FIND-OUT WHAT-HAPPEN

DrVicars: That sentence talks about a situation that happened before now, but the current
conversation is happening now. Some people might try to put the sign "YESTERDAY" at the
beginning of that sentence, but I wouldn't--it feels awkward.

DrVicars: You can directionalize many different verbs. Hand-to is the best example, but
"MEET" is also useful. [To sign MEET, you hold both index fingers out in front of you about a
foot apart, pointed up, palms facing each other. Then you bring them together--it looks like two
people meeting. Note: The index fingers do not touch, just the lower parts of the hands.]

For example ME-MEET-YOU can be done in one motion. I don't need to sign "I" "MEET"
"YOU" as three separate words. But rather I hold my right Index finger near me, palm facing
you, and my left index finger near you, palm facing me. Then I bring my right to my left. One
motion is all it took.

Monica: How do we know which verbs to use?

DrVicars: That is the hard part. Some just aren't directional in nature. For example: "WANT."
You have to sign it normal and indicate who wants what.

DrVicars: But if you are in doubt about whether or not to use indexing or directionality, go ahead and index it works every time even though it takes more effort.  (If you are taking an "in-person" class and prepping for an ASL test, it is in your best interest to become familiar with which of your vocabulary words can be directionalized.)

Monica: :-)

Art: Could you give examples for sweep, chop, and inward sweep diagrams used in [the Basic Sign Communication book] please.

[Note, Dr. Vicars uses BSC as one of the texts in one of his classes. He uses many other texts as well--not just one.]

DrVicars: Sure. The sweep would be to pluralize a sign like THEY.

DrVicars: The chop I'm not sure what you're referring to is it ...

[Clarification was made. The diagram in question is in the Basic Sign Communication text, ISBN 0-913072-56-7, Level1, module 4, page 17]

Art: Yes, the center at the bottom

DrVicars: it. You are talking about the three diagrams below the slightly larger one is that right?

Art: Yes

DrVicars: Good...we're making progress... If I were handing a paper to a number of individuals, I would use the middle diagram, [several short ME-GIVE-TO-YOU motions strung together in a left to right sweeping motion.]

If I were talking about passing a piece of paper to the class in general I would use the lower left diagram, [A sweeping motion from left to right.] If I were giving the paper to just two people, I'd use the lower right. [Two ME-GIVE-TO-YOU motions one slightly to the left, then one slightly to the right.]

Art: Thanks

[...various discussion...]

 Lii: How does one go about using ing, s, and ed endings ? Does it need to be done?

DrVicars: Good question Lii. Can I answer that next week during the grammar discussion?

Lii: You bet.

DrVicars: Thanks Lii

Sandy: Similar question - how do we use punctuation? Just pause - other than emphasis with

DrVicars: Again a good question. Okay then, let me go ahead and answer both questions briefly here, then we'll hear comments from those of you who have them.

DrVicars: "s" is a pluralization topic. You can pluralize any particular concept in a number of ways. So far in our lessons we have been using a sweeping motion, (To turn the word "HE" into the word "THEY"). 

The suffix "ed" is established by using a "tense marker" like PAST or is understood by context. For example if I know you are talking about a trip you went on last week, You don't need to keep signing "PAST," I would understand it was past tense. You could sign "TRUE GOOD" and I would know you meant "The trip went really well."  If I sign, "YESTERDAY ME WALK SCHOOL," the word "walk" would be understood as "walked."

DrVicars: Now, punctuation. You are right, you punctuate a sentence via your pauses and facial expressions.  One common type of punctuation is that of adding a question mark at the end of a question by drawing a question mark in the air or by holding the index finger in front of you in an "x" shape then straightening and bending it a few times. This is called a "Question Mark Wiggle." Most of the time people don't use Question Mark Wiggle at the end of a question.  Instead they rely on facial expression to indicate that a question has been asked.

DrVicars: "ing, ed, and other suffixes are not used in ASL in the sense that they are not separate signs that are added to a word. If I want to change "learn" into
"learning" I simply sign it twice to show it is a process. Many times the "ing" is implied. For example, "YESTERDAY I RUN" could be interpreted as "Yesterday I went for a run," or you could interpret it as, "Yesterday I was running." How you interpret it would depend on the rest of the message (context).

In American Sign Language, we have a different syntax. In general, the order of concepts in a sentence follows a "TOPIC" "COMMENT" arrangement. Also you will see a "TIME"
"TOPIC" "COMMENT" structure.

For example:

I personally prefer the first version. Depending on which expert you
listen to, you will hear that one way is better than the other.

Tom Humphries and Carol Padden in their book "Learning American Sign
Language," indicate that there are a number of "correct" variations of
word order in American Sign Language. For example you could say:
"I STUDENT I" or, "I STUDENT" or even, "STUDENT I"
And they are all correct


All of them are "correct." My philosophy is to do the "correct" version that works for the
greatest number of signers. It has been my experience
during my various travels across the U.S. that "I STUDENT" and "I FROM U-T-A-H" work
just fine and are less confusing to the majority of people.

I notice that many "ASL" teachers tend to become fanatical about encouraging their students to
get as far away from English word order as possible ("FROM U-T-A-H I").

Hey, that's okay for them, they have their reasons, but if you are a busy adult second language
learner, why not keep it simple and effective?

As far as a sentence without "be" verbs, the English sentence "I am a teacher" could be signed: "TEACHER ME " or even "ME TEACHER." Again, since both are correct, my suggestion is to choose the second version. [Remember to use appropriate facial expressions!]  If you are striving to pass an "ASL test" like the American Sign Language Teachers Association certification test (ASLTA), or the Sign Communication Proficiency Interview (SCPI) then by all means use the first version ("TEACHER ME") --not because it is any more ASL but because it "looks" less like English.  Test evaluators are only human.


In a message dated 1/8/2003 2:37:02 PM Central Standard Time, madprof@______ writes:

Hello Bill,

I was browsing about, and noticed "Learn to think in ASL" on
the grammar2 page... This may seem a stupid question, but what
is thinking in ASL like? Visualizing hands/body signing? Or for a hearie,
thinking the gloss as if spoken?



Great question!
It is a continuum. You start by simply translating things in your head. Which generally involves asking yourself, "How would I sign that?"

For example, in church (or wherever) when they are singing (with voices) you could be signing it in your head--actually imagining your hands signing the concepts (not words) of the song.

Try visualizing yourself shooting a basketball. Did you use English words?  Now compare that with visualizing yourself signing "NICE me-MEET-you."

Eventually, if you keep it up the English will fall away and you can literally carry on conversations without thinking your words first in English and then translating.




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