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ASL: Time first?

Is time always expressed "first" in ASL sentences?
By: William G. Vicars, EdD

Warning, if your brain is feeling rigid and inflexible today you might not want to read this post.

I'm going to suggest to you that much of what teachers and grammar books "claim" to be true about ASL is simply not the whole story.

For example, regardless of what your teacher has told you (about putting the time concept first), a phrase such as, "I should be in class right now!" -- will very likely be signed:

Or even:

After reading that suggestion (above) I'm sure many reader's brains are freaking out thinking "But, but, my teacher told me I'm supposed to put the time concept first!!!!"

I'm going to suggest to you that over-application of a single grammar principle leads to awkward signing that is often not reflective of actual ASL usage.

For example consider the problem with this sentence:

You might be tempted to interpret that as:
Do you think it will freeze next week?

When really the meaning of what you signed was closer to the meaning of:
Next week will you think it will freeze?

That is not the message I want to convey.
I don't want to know what you are going to think next week.
Rather -- I want to know what you think right now about something that will happen next week.

Always putting the time concept first occasionally leads to bad signing.
Most of the time such formulaic signing of the time concept first (because your teacher told you to) regardless of whether or not you really should -- works out fine due to you discussing simple stuff that can be figured out due to being obvious from context. However try living with someone for 30 years and you end up having more complex conversations more like this:

"Oh sure, right now you think it will freeze next week but next week will you think that?"


Invitation: You are all welcome to disagree with me here and argue all you like -- but please do so based on examples and evidence from unrehearsed real-life signing done by native or very-near-native level signers in environments or situations where they are discussing the time of something but are unaware that their discussion is going to be analyzed for purposes of documenting the use of "time" in ASL.

If people "know" (or even think) you are going to critique their signing they often start signing differently than they do in real life.

Moral of this story?

Over-application of singular grammar concepts can lead to bad signing.

Topic: The myth of "time first."

I'm suggesting is that the "rule" regarding putting signs like "yesterday" at the beginning of ASL sentences is to some extent a self-propagating self-perpetuating myth. Often "time first signing" is done because we believe we are supposed to do it. Then others see us do it and it lends credence to the myth.

If it is a rule -- it gets broken so often as to make the "rule" arguable.

By that I mean, if students were taking an ASL class and the teacher marked them wrong (or gave them a lower grade) for not putting time first in their sentences -- the students could appeal to the grade appeals committee and argue it by providing numerous examples of DEAF ASL signers not following the supposed "rule."

Examples from "The Stews" "…blood test yesterday." "needs a good nap because yesterday… "didn't end the vlog yesterday."

Examples from Rogan Shannon: "…notice from my video yesterday…" "…same shirt as yesterday"

Examples from "The Daily moth": "…visiting Dallas yesterday." "… over 700 points yesterday." "She was arrested yesterday… "He gave a keynote presentation yesterday"

Example from "Sign Duo": "so we didn't vlog a lot yesterday…"

Example from "Project Hope": "…you had unprotected sex yesterday"

Example from the "Gallaudet University Video Gallery" of yesterday being used as a "noun" (not an adverb) and thus not needing to be placed at the beginning of a sentence: "…you have to understand yesterday."

Example from the "Gallaudet University Video Gallery" of yesterday being used as an adverb yet not at the beginning of a sentence: "…cast a historic five zero vote yesterday."

Moral of the story?
In real life, "time first" is so often ignored as to cause thoughtful observers to question whether or not "time first" is actually a rule or if, instead, it is to a significant extent a self-propagating myth trotted out to help a signer look more (supposedly) "ASL-like" thus perpetuating the myth (and often leading to awkward signing that isn't reflective of the type of signing done by average Deaf ASL signers).





Sample:  Do you think it will freeze tonight?


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