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ASL Linguistics: Repeated Movement

In a message dated 11/25/2002 10:58:09 AM Central Standard Time, a student writes:

Hello Bill,
I'm a beginning self-learner of sign language (don't need to learn it, just fascinated by it). You have an excellent idea for your site, plus quite a lot of work is put into it. Thank you.

My question is about repeating signs. I've been studying ASL for only a few months, and I already found a few words, like "no" and "more" which in some places they tell you to make with repeated movements, and in
some places just ones. Does repeating make a difference in the meaning of a sign or is it just for emphasis?

Thank you in advance,


Check out the signs "sit/chair" "fly/airplane"  pairs for an example of how repeated movement can change the meaning of a sign. 

Nouns of noun/verb pairs have smaller repeated movement and verbs have a somewhat larger single continuous movement.

Yes, you are right in that much of the time the repeated movement is for emphasis. The sign need/must/have-to is an example.

Repeated movement can change "go" into attend.

Repeated movement can change "name" into "call" or "named" (as in, "I found a dog, and I named him Spot.")

Plus, sometimes the repeated movement is just wasted effort--sort of like stuttering.

So, the answer to you question is, "it varies" and "it depends."


In a message dated 7/14/2003 1:48:44 PM Central Daylight Time, writes:


While reading Signing Naturally1 I came across this:

"Introduce the sign ENGLISH. Finally, ask your students what are you teaching:
T: ME++ TEACH "what".

And on the same page, I found this:

"Ask the students the following questions:
a) ME TEACH++ "what".

Mind you that there was a line above "what" written on it "whq".

Now I'm concerned about the repitition:

How come in the first case ME was repeated, while in the second TEACH was repeated??


Hi Safa'a,

Good question. I personally wouldn't use the double movement on "ME." But let me tell you my viewpoint on the repetition by comparing it with the English word "am" and the suffix "ing."

In English I can say:

"I am teaching everyday."
"I teach everyday."

While some very minor differences in the meanings of those two sentences, for all practical purposes they mean the same.

Using a double movement on some signs turns them into nouns. For example if you sign "fly" by using two short movements instead of one large movement it means "airplane."

On other signs a double movement changes the meaning into a process similar to the way "-ing" turns "teach" into "teaching."

I view the double movement of the sign "I" as being similar to the inflection or stress of the word "I" as opposed to stressing the word "teach." For example, in English if a speaker stresses the word "I" in the phrase "I teach what?" The implied question is "Aside from what someone else teaches, what is it that I teach."

If on the other hand you were to stress the word "teach" you would be asking, "What is it that I teach (as opposed to what I do for a living or what I majored in college.)

To me, in a first or second day of ASL class the phrase "T: ME++ TEACH "what"?" lacks the necessary context to be used to mean "Aside from what someone else teaches, what is it that I teach."

Such being the case, I think that the double movement in the sign "I" in the sentence "T: ME++ TEACH "what"." is only good as an attention-getter similar to how a hearing person might clear their throat or say the word "um" before speaking.

Of course, it would be interesting to ask the authors of that book what exactly THEY mean by it.

If you find out more on this topic, please do forward it to me.


In a message dated 7/16/2003 1:23:17 AM Central Daylight Time, writes:

I can't find a good explanation for when it's appropriate to sign "how" twice. Rhetorical questions only? But I've seen it done in other situations not rhetorical.

Any help appreciated.
Scott Mather

Hi Scott,

I see the double movement used:
At the end of sentences that are used to respond to inquiries.
Example: I don't know how.

As one word questions.
Example: How?

As rhetoricals.
Example: She passed her class! How? Paid the teacher.

I see the single movment in circumstances where the concept of "how" is an integrated part of another concept:
Example: How are you? (common phrase)
Example: HOW-MUCH (bastardized compound version)

More discussion on this topic:

When compounds are made in ASL, internal movement or the repetition of movement is eliminated. This principle is called the "single sequence rule."


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