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ASL:  Topic / Comment

Also see: Subject / Verb / Object
Also see: Topicalization
Also see: ASL Grammar

True or False:
"The basic word order in ASL sentences with transitive verbs is Subject-Verb-Object."

Answer: True

True or False:
"In a basic ASL sentence, unmarked for time, with a transitive verb the word (sign) order is Subject-Verb-Object."

Answer: True

Compare these two statements:
1. Topic/Comment sentence structure.
2. A topicalized sentence.
---------- Next consider:
1. Topic/Comment sentence structures include.
a. SVO
b. O,SV
Thus part of that big myth is the idea that SVO isn't "topic comment."
Both SVO and "topicalized object sentences" are "topic comment."
In SVO the "S" is the topic. In topicalized object sentences the "O" is the topic.
In both sentence approaches we have a topic and then a comment about that topic.
"Topic/Comment" is an umbrella term under which we have both "SVO" and "topicalized object sentences."
Again though, most teachers lump together (inappropriately so) the concepts: "topic/comment" and "topicalized object sentences."

Let me clarify by asking a question:
"Are you saying that subject-verb-object sentences DON'T have a topic?"

It is unlikely that someone would say SVO sentences don't have a topic. So if subject-verb-object sentences DO have a topic (they do) and we make a comment about that topic (we do) it stands to reason that subject-verb-object sentences are just as "topic/comment" as "topicalized object sentences."

In the sentence: "The boy kicked the ball," -- the boy is the topic, the comment is that he "kicked the ball." The ball is the object.

If we want the ball to be the topic we move it to the beginning of the sentence: The ball was kicked by the boy.

Look up some official definitions of the word "topic" and you'll see what I mean when I say that a subject can be a topic just as well as an object can (actually a subject can MORE easily be a topic in ASL since you don't have to mess around with eyebrow raises). The Oxford dictionary tells us:
top·ic /ˈtäpik/
"A matter dealt with in a text, discourse, or conversation; a subject.."

Note that the dictionary definition of "topic" literally includes the word "subject."
(So yes, it is okay for the subject to be considered the topic.)

Then in the "linguistics" section of the "topic" entry in the dictionary we read:
"That part of a sentence about which something is said, typically the first major constituent."

Again this points to the idea that if you state:
"The boy ...blah blah blah," -- the boy (as the first major constituent of the sentence) is the topic of the sentence. If we want "ball" to be the topic of the sentence we "topicalize" it by moving it to the beginning of the sentence and "ball" becomes the topic.

To easily see how the boy can be the topic of a sentence stop using "transitive" sentences as your example and simply use an intransitive sentence consisting of something to the effect of:
"The boy tripped." Topic: the boy. Comment: "he tripped."
"The boy smiled." Topic: the boy. Comment: "he smiled."

Thus we see a "subject-verb" construction that is a "topic comment."

Subjects are the default topic. (No extra work.)

Objects need to be topicalized (via movement to the beginning of the sentence, a micro-pause, and raised eyebrows) in order to become the topic. (Takes extra work.)




Question:  How do "depictive signs*" fit into "topic/comment" sentence structure?
(*Note: Depictive signs are sometimes referred to as "ASL classifiers.") 

Response:   Depictive signs can be used in sentences to fill the role of subjects, objects, or "topicalized objects." However, if you use a not-yet-identified "depictive sign" you end up with a type of "vague pronoun" the meaning of which will not be clear until later on in your sentence.

When we use a depictive sign we typically refer to a person, thing, or element and then form a handshape (that represents a whole class of similar persons, things, or elements) as a pronoun for the noun.  Then we move or change that handshape/pronoun.  The way in which we move or change the handshape creates additional meaning (or a comment) regarding the noun.  This combination of a depictive handshape plus movement is sometimes referred to as a "classifier predicate."  Calling something a "classifier predicate" is a fancy way of saying that you are using a handshape to represent (or depict) a person, thing, or element plus you are simultaneously using movement to  say something about that person, thing, or element.

The phrase, "say something about" is another way to say, "comment."

"Say something about" = "comment."

Classifier Predicate = "handshape that represents a class of things" + "say something about."

Classifier Predicate = "a depictive sign depicting something."

You can depict a subject.

You can depict an object.

Since a "classifier predicate" is a "person/thing/element + a comment" we can safely say that if the "person, thing, or element is being used as the topic of a sentence then that classifier (depictive sign) is following topic-comment sentence structure. However think about this: Is it appropriate to label depictive signing in a linear fashion? 
Instead of:  TOPIC COMMENT -- we should perhaps think about depictive signing in more 3 dimensional terms such as:


*The traditional ASL definition of a "classifier" doesn't line up with the use of that term in spoken language linguistics. That is one of the reasons why you may see more and more authors or researchers using the term "depictive signs" or "depictive signing" (instead of "classifier").   Depictive signs can include a variety of roles such as noun, verb, pronoun, adjective, adverb, and/or preposition.

Perhaps the biggest myth taught by ASL teachers is that there is a difference between the basic word / sign order of sentences in ASL and English. In a basic (unmarked) sentence "The most basic word order in ASL sentences with transitive verbs is Subject-Verb-Object." That is a direct quote from the Gallaudet Press-published book: "Linguistics of American Sign Language." (3rd Edition, page 135.) Let there be no doubt in your mind whatsoever that it is okay to sign in Subject / Verb / Object order in ASL. If anyone wants to argue the topic with you, suggest they read the section on "Word Order" in that book instead of just parroting what they were told in their ASL 1 class by someone who may have never have actually studied the language they are purporting (claiming) to teach. How many of you Hearing / English speakers are ready to teach an English class for pay? Yet it is common for college-level ASL programs to hire people who have never in their life had any formal training in ASL.

- Dr. Bill


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