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American Sign Language: "subject-verb-object"

Also see: Topic/Comment


Believe it or not, (and regardless of you may have been told by well-meaning local ASL instructors and/or friends) the basic word order in ASL sentences with transitive verbs is Subject-Verb-Object. If anyone wants to argue you on this grammar rule, simply refer them to the "Linguistics of American Sign Language" (3rd Ed.) textbook page 135 where on item #3 of the chapter summary it states: "The most basic word order in ASL sentences with transitive verbs is Subject-Verb-Object."


 [Note: That textbook was authored by professors from the Linguistics Department at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C.]

In situations where the conversation partners have pre-existing information and/or are introducing a new topic to the conversation it is common to "topicalize" the sign for the topic. To topicalize a sign you move it to the beginning of the sentence, raise your eyebrows, and tilt your head forward a bit.

English also uses "topicalization."
You will see it in phrases such as:
"Do you remember John? Well, yesterday, I saw him..."
"That red sweater of yours? I washed it and..."
"About tomorrow, we need to..."
"Do you recall my old car? I sold it."
"In regard to your educational plan, you should..."
"Your doctor appointment? It was canceled."

Just as it would drive a Hearing person nuts if their conversation partner topicalized EVERY sentence -- the same is true for ASL. If you topicalize every sentence you sign in ASL you are going to seem very weird in real life conversations.

So, feel free to topicalize to establish or change your topic but once you have done so you should STOP topicalizing for the rest of the discussion on that subject.

Let me give you an example.
Suppose I'm at home with my wife and wanted to inform her that I'm going to the store and ask her if she needed anything.
I should sign:
The first sentence is obviously "subject-verb-object."
The first sentence would be unmarked. (Unmarked means I wouldn't do anything fancy or extra to it.)
The second sentence would use raised eyebrows. (It would be "marked" with raised eyebrows to add the meaning of: "do?"-[Yes or no?]

If I topicalized the first sentence as, "STORE? I/ME GO" it would seem slightly awkward or strange to her. It would be the equivalent in English of saying:
"Do you know the store? I'm going to it."
Well, duh! Of course she knows the store. It is the same store we have "gone to" for over a decade. I'm going to the regular store -- there is no need to "mark" it (or in other words there is nothing remarkable about the store and there is no need to distinguish it from some other store nor to ask if she remembers it). Thus topicalization in that context would be a waste of effort and inappropriate.

However, if I wanted to let her know that I was going to a different store I could sign:
Which would be the equivalent of saying, "Hey, do you remember yesterday we saw a new store? I'm going. Do you want to join me?"

Since she and I shared the experience of driving home yesterday and seeing a new store I could (and should) appropriately shorten my sentence to:

Topicalization works on objects: "JOHN? YESTERDAY STORE I SAW-(him)" (O?SV) John? Yesterday I saw him."
Topicalization works on subjects: "JOHN? LEAVE CITY" (S?VO) "John? He left town."

I'm going to state this again: The basic word order of ASL sentences with transitive verbs (verbs which have an object) is subject-verb-object. If your sentence can be made more efficient or engaging by clarifying or emphasizing your topic then go ahead and move that topic to the front of your sentence and raise your eyebrows while looking in your conversation partner's eyes for a glimmer of understanding then go ahead and finish your sentence.
"Wh"-type questions:
We tend to move question signs such as WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, WHICH, HOW, HOW-MUCH, & HOW-MANY (which are sometimes referred to as "WH"-type questions) to the end of complex or long sentences so as to allow for efficient facial grammar. By that I mean, you don't have to furrow your eyebrows the whole length of the sentence if you put the question word at the end of the sentence. 

Facial grammar for ASL questions can be compared to tonal inflection for spoken questions. Typically Hearing speakers inflect their tone at the end of a question sentence (which is equivalent to ASL putting "WH"-type signs at the end of a question sentence and furrowing the eyebrows and/or raising the eyebrows for rhetorical and/or yes/no type questions).

However it is not uncommon for Hearing people to raise the tone for the whole question sentence if the sentence is "short." This is equivalent to ASL signers leaving the "WH"-type sign at the beginning of a very short question and furrowing the brows for the whole question. For example: "WHO TEACH?" ("Who is teaching?")

The point is that you will see "WH"-type questions at either the beginning or the end of sentences.  The longer and more complex the "WH"-question -- the more likely to see the WH-type sign moved to the end OR done at both the beginning and (repeated) at the end.


"Yes/No"-type questions:
During questions such as "Did you...?" "Will you...?" "Are you...?" (which are sometimes referred to as "Yes/No"-questions since they are answered with a yes or no) we tend to repeat the pronoun at the end (low context situations) -- again for the purpose of allowing efficient facial grammar. (Example: "YOU GO PARTY (are)-YOU?" Thus the second use of the YOU sign (accompanied by raised eyebrows) is functioning as the equivalent of the "be"-verb "are" in English.

The basic sentence structure of ASL is Subject-Verb-Object. 

The false idea that the most basic sentence structure of ASL is Object-Subject-Verb (OSV)  is a myth (perpetuated by many well-meaning ASL instructors) and vloggers.

Sure, OSV exists in ASL and shows up quite often -- it just isn't the most basic sentence (nor most frequently used) structure in ASL. 

At a gut level most skilled signers know and agree with this (based on their own interactions in the Deaf community).  "Real" Deaf people don't go around constantly signing in OSV. We use OSV for specific purposes but our most frequently used structure is SVO. If anyone wants to argue you on this topic, simply point them to the "Linguistics of American Sign Language" textbook page 135 (3rd Ed.) where item #3 of the chapter summary states: "The most basic word order in ASL sentences with transitive verbs is Subject-Verb-Object."


Recently a student going through a lesson at wrote:
"I'm sort of confused as to how ASL grammar works. Do you put the order of the words the same way you do in English? One time you signed "Deaf you?" and another time you signed "You Deaf?" -- so I just want to know how to organize the words to form sentences."


In English you might ask a roommate:
"You coming?" as a shortened way of asking "Are you going to the party tonight?"
Or you might also phrase your question as:
"Are you coming?"

Either way works fine as long as there is plenty of context (meaning, your friend knows there is a party and it is obvious that you are asking about his participation).

You might shorten your question even more to:

Your roommate would still understand you.
My point is -- in English there are lots of acceptable ways to phrase sentences.

This is no different from ASL. In ASL you could ask someone:
DEAF (are)-YOU?

In context you can use extreme shortening:
Signer A: "YESTERDAY I GO DATE." = "Yesterday I went on a date."
Signer B: "DEAF?" = "Is she Deaf?"

Thus "appropriate grammar" is influenced by how much context you have.

A student asked:  How do you sign: "Today we are going to grandma's house."?

Instead of thinking that there is one perfect way to sign that instead we could ask: What are some good or common ways to sign a sentence such as:
"Today we are going to grandma's house."

In real life skilled Deaf signers typically will sign something to the effect of:
Any other sentence form will require more effort.

If there is no competing or compelling reason to "mark" the sentence in some way you should stick with the simplest form:
Topic: WE
You should muck with the above grammar only for reasons such as:
1. The audience is bored and you need to use a rhetorical "what-DO?" to get and hold their attention.
2. There is some confusion what is being done when.
3. There is some ambiguity as to whether we are already at grandma's house (heh).
4. There is a need to clarify that we are physically going to her house rather than simply viewing it remotely.
5. There is some doubt as to whether or not the house is actually grandma's.

The list could get longer but the fact remains that the simplest and most direct ASL version of that sentence is:

It is understood that the house belongs to grandma. You can even think of "grandma's house" as a two-word term (for a specific destination) rather than "a house owned by grandma."

Also, in real life, remember that the more context you have -- the fewer signs you use.

 If it is obvious "who" is going there is no need to include the WE concept.  Thus we could sign TODAY GO GRANDMA HOUSE!

With enough context we could even just sign "GO GRANDMA!" -- and be understood perfectly well that the meaning is: Today we are going to grandma's house." 


As part of a longer correspondence, an ASL teacher writes:
"When it comes to sentence structure and grammar, SVO order is fine, but I always try to get my students to think in pictures. I tell them, identify your vocabulary words, but SHOW me what it looks like as much as you can. Use classifiers and non-manual markers and role-shifting."
████ (name removed to protect privacy

Quite a few ASL teachers swing too far to one side of the ASL spectrum for fear of looking like they are signing "English."

While that is well-intentioned -- it can also lead to its own set of issues and biases.

For example, you stated:
"When it comes to sentence structure and grammar, SVO order is fine, but I always try to get my students to think in pictures."

(bold and italic formatting added by me)

I would suggest to you that actually SVO is more than "fine."

SVO is "the goal."

Why do I suggest that?

Subject - verb - object is "the most basic word order in ASL sentences with transitive verbs."

Anyone that wants to argue that statement might want to read this article:

If we believe what linguists have found in their studies -- that SVO is the "most" basic word order used in ASL -- then that would seem to indicate that we should spend "most" of our time teaching students to sign like most Deaf people sign (which, again, according to linguists -- is SVO).

"SVO is fine but I always try to get my students to think in pictures"
is comparable to:
"Walking is fine but I always try to get my students to dance."
"Talking is fine but I always try to get my students to sing songs."

Sure, "dancing" and "singing songs" are cool and all but if you "always" dance as your mode of transporting your body from place to place or sing songs when you want to communicate about normal stuff -- you will seem like a weirdo.

I recall the time a friend sheepishly got my attention to ask me a question. He wanted to know if his signing was "ASL."
I replied "Of course! Why do you ask?!?"
He responded that recently a new interpreter at work was doing all sorts of depictive signing and that when asked what they were doing the interpreter replied, "I'm signing ASL!" The Deaf man thought to himself (and asked me) "If that's ASL then what have I been signing all my life?!?"

LOL: Here was a Deaf man, married to a Deaf woman, both of whom attended a Deaf school, and had lived in the Deaf community all of his life and was sitting at a State Association for the Deaf board meeting (of which he was on the board) asking me if "he" signed ASL because some punk fresh out of an IPP was using signing on the extreme depictive end of the ASL spectrum (or "picture-like" signing for non-picture-like situations) that looked nothing like what real Deaf sign in everyday life.

Sure, include the skill of thinking in pictures in your overall curriculum or approach to teaching ASL -- but please do consider that article and don't decide that "highly" depictive signing (based on "thinking in pictures") is "always" better or more appropriate than simply using SVO -- especially when Gallaudet-based linguists have long documented SVO as being the most common sentence structure in ASL.

Warm regards,
+ Bill
William G. Vicars Ed.D.





(Source: Linguistics of American Sign Language, 5th Edition, page 112).


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