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American Sign Language: Grammar

Grammar links:  1 | 2 | 34 | 5 | 6

Also see: Grammar 1 | 2 | 3
Also see: Inflection

Heather: Can you leave out words like "it" "so" "the", etc. when signing?

DrVicars: Yes.  Signed English strives to include all those words as separate signs, but ASL simply incorporates them into other signs, non-manual markers (body language and facial expressions), or uses indexing.

When you sign ASL your aren't really "leaving those signs out.  You are simply expressing them in other ways.  For example, the sign "to."  If I want to say, "Do you like to eat ice-cream?"  I would raise my eyebrows slightly, tilt my head forward a bit, and sign, "YOU LIKE ICE-CREAM?"  The word "to" is not necessary for that sentence.  Even in English I can get rid of the word "to" by simply choosing different English words, for example:  "Do you like eating ice-cream," or "You like ice-cream? [while inflecting my voice]"

Another example using "to" is the sentence "I am going to the store."  You would simply sign, "I GO STORE."  The sign "STORE" following the sign "GO" makes perfect sense.  The word "to" is incorporated into the sign "GO" and doesn't need an extra sign.  So rather than thinking of the sign "GO" as the sign "GO" you should think of it as the sign "GO-TO."  That same idea applies to many ASL signs like "WANT-TO" "HAVE-TO" "NEED-TO" "LIKE-TO" "REMEMBER-TO."   For example the sentence, "You need to remember to go to the store" could be signed "YOU NEED REMEMBER GO STORE" or it could be signed, "HEY, STORE YOU GO NEED REMEMBER."  (In real life, if I were communicating with my wife, I'd simply sign "REMEMBER STORE.")

Another example, the word "it" can be done as an indexed motion, (pointing at the "it").  

 "A, an, the" and "be verbs" are also either incorporated into other signs, indexed (pointed at), signed as "TRUE," or indicated through non-manual markers such as a nod of the head.

So remember, even though ASL is not using a specific sign to show these English words, the functions they serve are "still expressed," but in a different form, (body, language, facial expression, syntax, directionality, pointing, etc.)

One more example, with the "head-nod," I can say, "I am a teacher" by signing "ME TEACHER <head-nod>" the function of the words "am a" are taken care of by the head-nod.

Heather: Good! That helps a lot, because it's easier to get the point across without them.

Grammar Note:
If you were sitting in a room with other signers waiting for the class to begin and you wanted to know the name of your teacher you would sign: "WHO TEACHER?" This would be understood as: "Who is our teacher?" Notice how we don't need the sign OUR? You would only need the sign OUR if you had to distinguish between your group's teacher and some other group's teacher.

In a message dated 4/27/2006 4:57:17 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, a student at writes:
Dr Bill,
I'm studying and it occurred to me that sometimes when someone asks a question in English they furrow their brow when they are asking the question in disbelief, or concern.  Is it legitimate to use the same method to punctuate an ASL sentence if that is the energy you want to put on question?  It seems to me that both the raised brow and furrowed would work to show concern.  Am I completely off base in regard to ASL?
Raised brows would show surprise or questioning the veracity of a thing or idea.
So, in English, disbelief would be indicated with raised eyebrows.
Lowered brows would show disapproval or indicate a request for more than a simple yes or no answer.
From what I've seen, it works that way in both English and ASL for raised brows.  English doesn't furrow the brows as much as ASL for simple "wh-type" questions, but I suspect that if you were to videotape Hearing people asking wh-type questions you would find a number of them furrowing their brows slightly.


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