Linguistics of ASL: "Topicalization"

Notes from Dr. Bill Vicars' Linguistics class:

Dear Dr. Bill,
I am presently taking an ASL class (this time at a Community College with Gallaudet professors, reason why going there, for them as teachers!) and am having some problems with the WAY they are teaching this course. I've taken private lessons from a Gallaudet alumni who teaches in small groups, is a storyteller, signs BEAUTIFULLY (OMG!), and in 2002 was taking this SAME EXACT course (at the same college, but with a VERY different book - and teacher) one of your lessons you state that it is okay to sign, "WHERE FROM YOU?"
I have always been taught that in ASL the English question:" Where are you from?" would be translated into ASL as:
"You from where you?" as opposed to "Where from you?"
I can deal with the new signs and different meanings for the same sign, but I'm getting so confused due to learning from so many different people, all whom seem to have different ideas of how to TEACH sign, all are Native ASL users, and they are also using different ways of forming "sentence" structure, which is the MOST confusing to me.
-- Name on file

Dear Student,
In general in ASL we do tend to put "wh" type signs (who, what, when, where, why, & how) at the end of question sentences.
To understand why we do this it helps to realize that it feels strange and/or uncomfortable to hold a WH facial expression (furrowed eyebrows) for the duration of a medium length or longer sentence (four signs or more).
So we tend to move the WH question to the end.
The facial expressions we use in ASL to form questions are the equivalent of how Hearing people raise the tone of their voice.
Here is the thing to understand though, when Hearing people ask very short questions, they raise the tone of their voice throughout the whole question.
Hearing people do this because the meaning of this very short utterance is actually made more clear by using the raised tone of voice throughout the whole sentence (since the duration is so short). Try it yourself. Say "Are you GOING?" and only emphasize the last word. Then voice it again and emphasize all three words: "ARE YOU GOING?"
You will probably think that it feels "weird" to try to say "Are you" (normal voice) and then switch over to "GOING?" (high tone) for just the last word. It feels "better" to just say all three words in high tone since the sentence is so short. It is more smooth and less jarring to use one tone for a short sentence than to try to cram two different tones into a three word question.  Just as common (for Hearing people) is to say "You going?" -- with a rise in the voice taking place of the "are." Which is to say, Hearing people often do not "say" the word "are" but rather indicate "are" by raising the voice.
The same thing applies to signed conversations using short three-concept questions. Very short questions can use the WH question at the beginning of the sentence since it becomes more smooth and "economical" to form one facial expression for a three-sign sentence using a non-topicalized sentence structure than it is to form two different facial expressions for a 3-sign sentence using a topicalized sentence structure.
Many ASL teachers (even the really "good ones" that teach at prestigious universities) and who sign "really well" have pre-conceived notions and/or biases that prevent them from wrapping their minds around this principle.

Now, how do advanced signers really ask where someone is from?  We don't even use the sign "WHERE."  HA!  We often just sign "YOU FROM?" while using furrowed eyebrows!  The "where" concept is expressed by the furrowed eyebrows and thus doesn't need a separate sign. I like to write that as: "YOU where-FROM?"  I lowercase the word "where" in the gloss as my way of indicating that it is "included" in the concept but doesn't use a separate sign.  Also, we tend to drop the sign YOU from that question if it is obvious to whom we are asking the question.  If we are meeting three new people we might tend to add "YOU" or "YOU-plural/sweep" to the sentence to clarify exactly to whom we are asking the question.
Dr. Bill


ASL Syntax Beyond the First 10 Minutes:
How Topicalization is REALLY Used in Native-level Communication Environments

What is "topicalization" and how is it different from "topic comment" (TC) sentence structure?

In a message dated 8/27/2007 3:00:52 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, nasha5(at) writes: 

Hi Dr. Bill,
 Barbara here. I study ASL at a community college here in NY. My dilemma is that I am confused with the sentence structure in ASL. I was previously taught Topic comment sentence structure and Time- Topic- Comment structure. This semester my instructor tells me that only Topic-Object-Subject-Verb structure is acceptable. I am very confused because I thought the topic was the subject.  (continued)

Could you please give me some examples of this new structure. Why is "Topic/Comment" not acceptable now? Please answer me soon I have a test coming up and want to practice this new structure before my exam.
 - Barb

Dear Barb,
ASL follows several different "word orders" depending on what is needed.
Which word order you choose depends on your audience's familiarity with the topic and what you are trying to do: explain, remind, confirm, negate, cause to consider, etc.

Much of your confusion (and that of others) has to do with the fact that you can use either a subject or object as your "topic" in a sentence.

If you use the subject as your topic, you are using "active voice."

Example: The boy threw the ball. (BOY THROW BALL)

If you use the object as your topic your are using "passive voice."

Example: The ball was thrown by the boy. (BALL? BOY THROW).

Note that the active voice: BOY THROW BALL is definitely SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT word order.

The passive voice is: OBJECT-SUBJECT-VERB word order.

Both of those can be considered TOPIC COMMENT:

Topic: BOY Comment: THROW BALL (active voice)

Topic: BALL Comment: BOY THROW (passive voice)

In the passive voice sentence the "ball," which is actually the object, is being used as the topic, and the comment is that it "was thrown by the boy."

So, you can see that the topic can be either a subject or an object.

A "topic" is simply that to which a comment is referring.

A topic is what you are talking about.  My topic can be a "BOY" or it can be the "BALL" he is throwing.

The BOY can be the subject of the sentence: BOY THROW BALL
The BOY can be the object of the sentence. BALL HIT BOY
The BALL can be the subject of the sentence. BALL HIT BOY
The BALL can be the object of the sentence. BOY THROW BALL
My comment can be "THROW BALL"
My comment can be "HIT BOY"

Therefore a TOPIC-COMMENT sentence structure can use either a SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT word order, or it can use an OBJECT, SUBJECT VERB word order.

When you use "OBJECT, SUBJECT VERB" order you tend to do something called "topicalizing" or you are using "topicalization."

 Topicalization is the process of using a certain set of behaviors to introduce the object of your sentence and turn it into your topic.

You do this by using "yes/no question expression" (raised eyebrows) while signing the topic, and then making a comment about the topic. During the comment portion of your sentence your facial expression should match the intent of the comment, (negation, affirmation, declaration).

At this point in the discussion you might be wondering:
"When should I use passive voice instead of active voice?"

Another way to ask that same question is, "When should you use topicalization?"

Yet, another way to ask that same question, "When should you put the object at the front of the sentence while raising your eyebrows?"

There are several situations when you should topicalize. A few examples applying to ASL are:

1. Unknown subject: When the subject is unknown: MY WALLET? GONE! (I don't know why it is missing, if it was stolen, or who stole it. Thus to state this with active voice I'd have to sign something to the effect of, "SOMONE STOLE MY WALLET" -- which takes longer.)

2. Irrelevancy: MY CAR? SOLD! (It doesn't really matter who sold it. Just that the process is over. So why should I waste time explaining who sold it? Maybe it was my friend's uncle that sold it to his coworker. So what. It's gone!)

3. Expediency: MY iPHONE? FOUND! (If I explained to you last week that was at the county fair and lost my mobile device I don't want to have to explain it to you again if you still remember what I told you before. So I sign "iPHONE" with my eyebrows up and then when you nod in recognition that tells me you do indeed remember the conversation, then I go ahead and tell you that it was found.)

Some instructors overemphasize topicalization or give the impression that the majority of ASL communication is topicalized. The fact is most ASL sentences are simply SUBJECT-VERB (transitive)-OBJECT, example: "BOY THROW BALL" or are SUBJECT-VERB (intransitive), for example: "HE LEFT."

Now let's be clear that TOPIC COMMENT is not the same thing as topicalization.  TOPIC COMMENT means stating a topic and then making a comment.

Topicalization means that you are using the object of the sentence as the topic and introducing it using yes/no question expressions followed by a comment.

You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure without using topicalization.
You can also use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using topicalization.

You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT

You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using SUBJECT-VERB (HE RUN.)

You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using SUBJECT-NOUN (HE HOME = "He is home.")

You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using SUBJECT-ADJECTIVE (HE TALL = "He is tall.")

You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using OBJECT, SUBJECT-VERB ("MONEY? she-GIVE-me).

All of the above constitutes only a partial list of ways to express grammatically correct ASL. In each case the topic is simply what you are "talking about."

YOUR TEACHER, WHO? (Topicalized: Y/N? followed by WH? expression)
WHO YOUR TEACHER? (WH? Expression only)(non-topicalized)

"Topicalization" is not the norm in extended Deaf conversations and is reserved for specific purposes in certain contexts.

Consider the observations of Nichola Horrell-Schmitz regarding ASL syntax in extended conversations amongst native ASL users.

Remember:  Topicalization and "topic comment" have two different meanings.

A "topic comment" (TC) sentence can either topicalized or non-topicalized:
TC Topicalized: YOUR MOM?
YESTERDAY I MET! (Your mom is the topic.) OVS
TC Non-topicalized:

TC Topicalized: MY CAT? DIED! (Your cat is the topic.)
TC Non-topicalized: MY CAT DIED! (Your cat is still the topic.)
(Note: the word "MY" in those sentences is an "attributive adjective.")


Author: William Vicars EdD. 


"Active Voice."  The subject does the action expressed in the verb; the subject acts.

"Passive Voice" 
The subject receives the action expressed in the verb; the subject is acted upon.









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