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American Sign Language: Grammar
(5)

Grammar links:  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7  Also see: Inflection

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

thanks

Barb


Barb,

Two issues.

1.  The first issue is getting the grade you want out of class.  To do that you need to follow whatever method your current instructor wants you to follow.  Thus regardless of what I tell you, regardless of what any book or expert tells you, regardless of what you see in the Deaf community--if you care about your grade, you need to do it the way your current instructor wants it.  I often tell my in-class students, there are many ways to sign. For the next 15 weeks, my way is the "right" way.  Heh. 

 

2.  The second issue is ASL grammar.

I've written quite a bit about ASL Grammar already and posted it to the Lifeprint Library.  Go to:

http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/topics.htm

and scroll down to the "Grammar" heading.

Here I will respond to your confusion regarding the terms "topic" and "subject."

Let me state up front: ASL follows several different word orders depending on what is needed.

Which word order you choose depends on 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 are doing something called "topicalizing" or you are using "topicalization."  Topicalization simply means to take 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?"

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 SIDEKICK? FOUND! (If I explained to you last week that was at the county fair and lost my text messaging 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 "SIDEKICK" 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.)

 

Unfortunately some instructors overemphasize topicalization or give the impression that the majority of ASL communication is topicalized.  The fact is many (if not 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.

You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure without using topicalization.

You can 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."

Cordially,

Dr. Vicars
 

The MYTH of Topic Comment
By Bill Vicars

Many languages use SVO as their main word order -- including English and ASL.  Both English and ASL mainly use SVO but also use other "word orders" for specific tasks. (Such as establishing context.)

Here is a principle for you:

ASL Grammar Principle:  Topic/Comment (T/C) grammar tends to take place in low context situations to assist in confirming or establishing context. Once context has been established T/C is abandoned and replaced with SVO and other structures.

I challenged a 5th Generation Deaf woman (and one of the best ASL signers on the planet) observe the real life usage of T/C and SVO sentence structures by individuals who are Deaf as she attended Deaf events.

This was her report:

 
In a message dated 3/17/2008 10:45:38 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, she wrote:
I went to a fundraiser party last Sat nite.  Studied deafies' signs with Topic/Comment in mind.  They use TC mainly when not in context so to establish one. But for subsequent conversations, TC is abandoned for reg SVO and other structures    I need to do more observations.  That's getting interesting.

In a message dated 2/7/2013 1:56:59 P.M. Pacific Standard Time, walkinglady22@yahoo.com writes:
Why is ASL sentence structure built (for example) "I happy I", as repeating the "I" in the sentence? When I first saw this "different" type of sentence structure, the first thought I had was "Who talks like this???". I know it's different because it's a language of its own, but still, I don't know where to get the answer to the question of "Why" it is built this way. It just seems a bit odd that the "I" would be repeated, when it's obvious it doesn't need to be because it is already in the beginning of the sentence.
 
Okay, first things first. English has many different sentence structures. Which structure gets used varies depending on context and intent. Similarly, ASL has many different sentence structures which are used according to the context and intent.
So, "I HAPPY I" is just "one" example of a possible sentence structure.
Tell me this though. Why do you use the word "am" in the English sentence, "I am happy"? Where do we find the answer as to "why" English is built that way? English could just as easily say, "I happy" and have it mean that a person is happy. Yet, English adds the TOTALLY unnecessary word "am."
You read about "I happy I" and asked who talks like this??? The answer is "no one." Nobody talks (with their voice) like that -- but then again, talking and signing are two very different modalities of communication.
Think of the extra "I" in the "I HAPPY I" sentence as being equivalent to "am" and is used (along with a head nod) for clarification and affirmation. Often, (if there is a lot of context) one of the "I" signs is dropped and the meaning is still clear.
Cordially,
Dr. Bill
In a message dated 2/7/2013 1:56:59 P.M. Pacific Standard Time, walkinglady22@yahoo.com writes:
Why is ASL sentence structure built (for example) "I happy I", as repeating the "I" in the sentence? When I first saw this "different" type of sentence structure, the first thought I had was "Who talks like this???". I know it's different because it's a language of its own, but still, I don't know where to get the answer to the question of "Why" it is built this way. It just seems a bit odd that the "I" would be repeated, when it's obvious it doesn't need to be because it is already in the beginning of the sentence.

Dear Walkinglady,
Okay, first things first. English has many different sentence structures. Which structure gets used varies depending on context and intent. Similarly, ASL has many different sentence structures which are used according to the context and intent.
So, "I HAPPY I" is just "one" example of a possible sentence structure.
That particular example would likely only be used if you were responding to someone who was challenging or questioning your happiness.
(Where are you getting that example from anyway? Somewhere on my site?)
Tell me this though. Why do you use the word "am" in the English sentence, "I am happy"? Where do we find the answer as to "why" English is built that way? English could just as easily say, "I happy" and have it mean that a person is happy. Yet, English adds the TOTALLY unnecessary word "am."
You read about "I happy I" and asked who talks like this??? The answer is "no one." Nobody talks (with their voice) like that -- but then again, talking and signing are two very different modalities of communication.
Think of the extra "I" in the "I HAPPY I" sentence as being equivalent to "am" and is used (along with a head nod) for clarification and affirmation. Often, (if there is a lot of context) one of the "I" signs is dropped and the meaning is still clear.
Cordially,
Dr. Bill

 


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