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American Sign Language: "was"

The concept of "was" can indicated by using the sign "PAST." However, in ASL we tend to put "time concepts" at the beginning of our sentence or story thus eliminating the need for a separate sign for "was."

 For example, if I signed, "last-WEEK I/ME BROKE-financially" it would mean, "I was broke last week." By putting "past tense" markers at the beginning of the sentence we make it clear that we are talking about the past.

The sign for "past" is made by moving your dominant hand over your dominant shoulder.  Your palm should face your body. The more emphasis you give the motion and/or the larger movement you use indicates further into the past:

Also see: PAST / BEFORE
Also see: Up to now / SINCE
Also see: "be"-verbs


A student asks:
My Deaf friend showed me a sign for "WAS" that starts as a "W" and turns into an "S" as it moves backward over the shoulder. Is that Signed English?

Dr. Bill replies:
You are correct, it "was" Signed English. (Heh).
While you may see some Deaf people use the Signed English version of "was," I don't recommend you use that version in your ASL class nor on an ASL test.

Quite a few Deaf people were mainstreamed, had teachers who didn't know ASL that well, and/or attended school programs where the mode of communication was Signed English. That means in the Deaf Community you will often see a mixture of signs being used. 

Hearing people (especially students) should resist the temptation to correct the signing of their Deaf friends who sign a bit of English here and there (just let it go and don't worry about it -- culturally it is not your place to correct our signing).  I do however encourage you to strive to sign in a manner that is reflective of the signing generally produced by native Deaf ASL signers who have attended ASL-based instructional programs at residential Schools for the Deaf.

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