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American Sign Language: Grammar (7)

Grammar links:  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 Also see: Inflection

In a message dated 7/17/2009 10:01:03 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time, Michael Vance  writes:

Hey Dr. Vicars,
... I know that tense is established at the beginning of the sentence, such as:

What I am curious about, however, is how do you change the tense of only part of your sentence. For example, what would the ASL gloss for this sentence be?
"Today, I need to email the people that I met yesterday."

There are two tenses in this one sentence! What do you do?

Thanks for your help!

Actually I'd sign, YESTERDAY I MEET DAN.
Or I'd sign "DAN? YESTERDAY I MEET-him"
Any other construction would be an silly (and unnecessary) attempt to make ASL look less like English (for no reason other than to "look less like English").  If you have a local instructor who is telling you that "YESTERDAY I DAN MEET" is the way to do it, I'd encourage that person to study ASL Linguistics a bit more.

As far as the sentence: "Today, I need to email the people that I met yesterday" -- the correct way to sign it depends on the situation:

Situation 1: Suppose the person with whom I'm conversing doesn't know yet that I have met anyone. I would sign: "YESTERDAY I MEET MANY PEOPLE. TODAY I NEED EMAIL THEM." (Note: I added the concept "MANY" as an example of typical usage. To sign the sentence without some sort of quantifier would be awkward.)

Situation 2: Suppose the person with whom I'm conversing already knows that I went to a convention or meeting yesterday and that I met people and he or she knows that I met some more people this morning. Now I need to convey the specific idea that I need to email a subset of all the people I have met. I could sign: "PEOPLE I MET YESTERDAY? I NEED EMAIL-them TODAY!"

When signing ASL it is important to recognize when "time-related" signs are being use to establish tense and when they are being used to modify or describe other concepts. Both of the examples above are correct ASL grammar when done in context. The context includes the person with whom you are conversing and their knowledge of the situation. Thus what constitutes "correct ASL grammar" depends in part on how much the other person knows about your topic.

A skilled signer would might also use the sideways "glancing blow" contact movement when signing MEET MEET in that sentence if the meetings were random and casual (instead of specific and formal). (If that is ambiguous, ask me in person.) -- Just one of the thousand micro variations that influence the meaning.

Consider how you might want to sign (the example sentence) in BOTH situations:  1. High context  vs.  2. Low context

How would you account for pre-existing knowledge (high context) in each of those situations?

What is interesting about this sentence is that we will sign it differently depending on the meaning of the speaker.

We have to ask ourselves why is the English speaker adding the word “today” to his (or her) sentence?

Instead of just saying “I need to email the…” he is saying “Today I need to email the…”

We also ask ourselves why did you (Richard) gloss the word “must” instead of the word “need?”

(Which would seem to indicate you would be using a single strong movement for your sign “must” as opposed to a gentler double movement for “need?”) What is it about the original sentence that caused you to choose "must?"

Next we ask, is there a difference between the sign(s) for “today I will” vs “today I must”?

Then we look at the move/hold pattern of the sign “TODAY-must.” This sign is a variant of the sign TODAY but done further out from the body and with a stronger second movement that has a considerably longer hold than the normal movement and almost always comes at the end of a statement.

The signs “TODAY-must” and “NOW-or-never” are both, curiously, almost always done at the end of a sentence.

Thus if we interpret the English sentence as have an “imperative” meaning such as “I must email those people today” and if we use the “TODAY-must” sign, that sign will (by convention) end up at the end of the sentence.

If however we interpret the English sentence as “declarative” (and not “imperative”) then the sign TODAY (non-inflected) will likely end up at the beginning of the sentence.
So we ask, is the use of “today” in this sentence intended to be declarative or imperative?

I reckon the only person who can answer that would be the original speaker, but in the absence of such information we can best proceed by looking at other typical examples. Perhaps the quintessential example might be:
1. “I need to go to the store.”
2. “Today I need to go to the store.”
3. "I need to go to the store today!"

In example 2 we see that “today” is not being used to establish tense but rather it is being used semantically to add the meaning of "other days I haven't needed to go to the store but today I do."

Example 3 above also doesn't use "today" to establish "tense" but rather to indicate something to the effect of: “tomorrow won’t be acceptable.”

Now compare our original sentence:
"Today, I need to email the people that I met yesterday," and ask yourself, why didn’t the speaker simply say: "I need to email the people that I met yesterday."?

The fact is we don't need to "do" anything to establish "present tense." It is understood by default. 
Thus we could reasonably conclude that the function of the word “today” in the original sentence is not to establish “tense” but rather to function as an adverb.

When in doubt, if you are an ASL student taking a class, I recommend you follow the conventional "chronological construction of time, then establishment of your topic, then make your comment" -- approach to ASL grammar as applied to expressing dual tense.

However, please keep in mind than in real life, many native ASL signers are sometimes going to use the inflected sign "TODAY-must" (which if done with "extended arms" and a strong double movement tends to mean "Right now!" or "It's now or never!") at the end of a sentence because it is being used to make a comment, not establish tense.
Dr. Bill

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