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Topic: WH-rightward movement unnecessary in very short questions

Recently a Youtube commenter asked a question regarding my older "Lesson 4" instructional video. The commenter's question was:

"For number 11, why is the sign for "who" first? Why doesn't [the WH-question] go last?"

I took a look at the (old) video and noted that the question was "Who hurt your feelings?" and the signs were "WHO HURT YOUR FEELINGS?"

That particular question/sentence is an interesting situation wherein If you don't lead with the sign WHO -- you end up needing to either live with ambiguity for a short while or you need to use additional signs such as: PERSON HURT YOUR FEELINGS, WHO? or "SOMEONE HURT YOUR FEELINGS, WHO?"

If you choose to topicalize the sentence -- during the first part of the sentence you end up having to raise your eyebrows (for PERSON HURT YOUR FEELINGS) to establish it as your topic and then furrow your brows to ask the WH-question. Using "more signs" and an "additional facial expression" literally takes more work and thus linguistically is contraindicated.

As time goes on though I find myself more and more "teaching" WH-question rightward -- NOT because it is (always) "right" but because it is expected and common among ASL teachers (and students) who use my curriculum.

For example, I actually have adjusted my lesson page to instead list:
Practice Sheet: 4.C

I adjusted the practice question not because the rightward movement of the WHERE (in the case of this very short sentence) is better but rather because of zeitgeist. In real life for very short questions such as "Where do you hurt?" -- it is my assertion that we will fairly often see: WHERE HURT? (Without the YOU -- since the person to whom we are signing obviously knows we are talking to them -- not someone else).

The sentence "WHERE HURT" is so short that topicalization and rightward movement of the WH-question is unnecessary. Indeed, the topicalization process would add an extra facial expression and thus require more work without a significant payoff. More work with no benefit is not the direction in which languages evolve.

At your convenience, please see this page:

Specifically read the criticism expressed in item 1 regarding "Formulaic Syntax."*

The fact is -- very short sentences do fine with WH-questions on the left side since the eyebrow furrow is not held long enough to become awkward, the meaning is still obvious, and we are often saved from doing two facial expressions when only one is needed.

Is it okay to sign, "HURT WHERE?:

Yes, it is fine to ask "HURT WHERE?"

I'd bet most "experts" will strongly prescribe signing "HURT WHERE?" (over WHERE HURT?) -- I'm simply saying that due to the shortness of the sentence in this case it doesn't matter.
I'm also saying stick with the furrowed brows on the sign WHERE (and don't try to raise your brows on "HURT").

Remember, I'm simply suggesting that students (and teachers) avoid "one size fits all" attempts at ASL grammar.

Consider the difference between these two English samples:

1. Are you in pain? Where?

2. Where does it hurt?

The first one would work well topicalized: PAIN-[eyebrows-up], WHERE-[eyebrows down].

For the second sample it would be a waste of brow movement to raise the brows.  You can just keep them lowered.  Also for the second sample the order of the two signs doesn't matter -- unless you are taking a class taught by a prescriptive teacher.  In that case do it however your teacher wants until you get the grade you want -- then go out to the Deaf Community and see how it is done (and the variety) by local Deaf adult native signers.



Just in case the page to which I referred becomes unavailable, here is a quote of the relevant material:

"Formulaic Syntax. Many interpreters, in their zeal to learn and preserve ASL, often develop an unnuanced, formulaic idea of what ASL is. As a result, they apply overly simplistic "rules" about what constitutes "pure" ASL. For instance, such interpreters expect all ASL sentences to use topicalization or right-movement of wh-questions (wh- question words at the ends of sentences). Such an approach reveals an incomplete understanding of the wide range of syntactic variation available in ASL." 

Source: Surrency, Steven (November 10, 2015) "Respecting Language: Sign Language Interpreters as Linguistic Descriptivists," Street Leverage, Retrieved, July 30, 2019 from


Also see: WH-question Placement in ASL

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