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American Sign Language: Locatives

In a message dated 2/29/2004 5:32:03 PM Pacific Standard Time, ybdzy@_________ writes:
I am enjoying your web site but have a question. What are locatives in ASL?




Locatives are signs that take on additional meaning according to location where they are signed.

Here's some background and an explanation:

A sign has five general parameters or characteristics. The main four are the shape of the hands, the orientation of the hands (which way the palm is pointing), the way the hands move (speed, direction, path), and the location of the sign. A fifth aspect of a sign consists of what you do with the rest of your body during the sign: facial expressions, the tilt of your head, the position of your shoulders, and how you shift your torso to face certain directions. This fifth parameter is called "nonmanual markers" or NMMs (facial expressions, body posture, and head tilt).

So then the things that make up a sign are the NMMs, handshape, orientation, movement, and location.

For example, if you were to ask me how to "say" the sign "FATHER" in ASL, I'd make a "5" handshape, I'd orient my hand so that the palm faced left and my fingers pointed up, I'd place my thumb on my forehead, and I'd move (or not move as the case may be) the hand in a certain way. This is the way the sign "FATHER" is "articulated." The word articulate, in this situation, means "pronounced."

If you mess up or change any one of those four parameters you end with one of the following situations:

1. The creation of a "sign" that doesn't mean anything. Amusing perhaps, but not very useful.

2. The creation of a "mispronounced sign" that can be understood but that is indicative of poor signing skills.

3. The signing of a totally different sign with a totally different meaning from what you intended.

4. An intentional change in the meaning of a sign. (This is known as "inflecting" a sign. An inflection is a change or variance).

That fourth item, "inflection" of a sign, is very common in ASL. Often we use our facial expressions or the speed and movement of a sign to tweak the meaning of a sign.

We can also inflect certain signs by changing the accompanying NMMs. For example, in the sign for HAPPY, if we shake our head and use a frown rather than a smile we end up with the concept of "not happy." We are still talking about "happiness" --so the base concept is the same--but the concept has been modified to mean "unhappy."

We can inflect certain signs by changing their movement. For example, if I do the sign "SIT" moving both hands in a circular movement (similar to the rowing of a boat) it inflects the sign to mean, "Sit for a long time.)

In the two examples above, notice how I said you can inflect "certain" signs? Different signs are inflected different ways. Some signs don't allow changes in handshape, movement, orientation, or location. These signs must be done a certain way or they will become meaningless or "mispronounced."

You can't change the location of most signs without creating a meaningless sign and/or signing something altogether different. For example, if I did the sign "FATHER" in a different location it would no longer mean "FATHER." Instead it would take on a new, unrelated meaning, or it would become meaningless. For example by doing the sign "FATHER" on my chest instead of my forehead it would mean "FINE." If I did the sign "FATHER" by touching the thumb of my right hand to my left-elbow (instead of touching it to my forehead) the sign would become "meaningless." Neither of which have anything to do with the concept of "father."

There are however some signs that can be inflected by changing the location where the sign is produced. For example, you can do the sign "PAIN" near the forehead to mean headache, near the jaw to mean toothache, or near the stomach to mean stomachache. Or you could do the sign "PUT" up high to mean "Put it up high." Changing the location of the sign "adds" meaning to the sign. The sign still means the same, we just have "more" information. Signs that are able to be inflected in this way are called "locatives."


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