American Sign Language:
In a message dated 2/29/2004 5:32:03 PM Pacific Standard Time, ybdzy@_________
I am enjoying your web site but have a question. What are locatives in
Locatives are signs that take on additional meaning according to location
where they are signed.
Here’s some background and an explanation:
A sign has five general parameters or characteristics. The main four are the
shape of the hands, the orientation of the hands (which way the palm is
pointing), the way the hands move (speed, direction, path), and the location of the sign. A fifth
aspect of a sign consists of what you do with the rest of your body during
the sign: facial expressions, the tilt of your head, the position of your
shoulders, and how you shift your torso to face certain directions. This
fifth parameter is called "nonmanual markers" or NMMs (facial
expressions, body posture, and head tilt).
So then the things that make up a sign are the NMMs, handshape, orientation,
movement, and location.
For example, if you were to ask me how to “say” the sign “FATHER” in ASL,
I’d make a “5” handshape, I’d orient my hand so that the palm faced left and
my fingers pointed up, I’d place my thumb on my forehead, and I’d move (or
not move as the case may be) the hand in a certain way. This is the way the
sign “FATHER” is “articulated.” The word articulate, in this situation,
If you mess up or change any one of those four parameters you end with one
of the following situations:
1. The creation of a “sign” that doesn’t mean anything. Amusing perhaps, but
not very useful.
2. The creation of a “mispronounced sign” that can be understood but that is
indicative of poor signing skills.
3. The signing of a totally different sign with a totally different meaning
from what you intended.
4. An intentional change in the meaning of a sign. (This is known as
“inflecting” a sign. An inflection is a change or variance).
That fourth item, “inflection” of a sign, is very common in ASL. Often we
use our facial expressions or the speed and movement of a sign to tweak the
meaning of a sign.
We can also inflect certain signs by changing the accompanying NMMs. For
example, in the sign for HAPPY, if we shake our head and use a frown rather
than a smile we end up with the concept of “not happy.” We are still talking
about “happiness” –so the base concept is the same--but the concept has been
modified to mean “unhappy.”
We can inflect certain signs by changing their movement. For example, if I
do the sign “SIT” moving both hands in a circular movement (similar to the
rowing of a boat) it inflects the sign to mean, “Sit for a long time.)
In the two examples above, notice how I said you can inflect “certain”
signs? Different signs are inflected different ways. Some signs don’t allow
changes in handshape, movement, orientation, or location. These signs must
be done a certain way or they will become meaningless or “mispronounced.”
You can’t change the location of most signs without creating a meaningless
sign and/or signing something altogether different. For example, if I did
the sign “FATHER” in a different location it would no longer mean “FATHER.”
Instead it would take on a new, unrelated meaning, or it would become
meaningless. For example by doing the sign “FATHER” on my chest instead of
my forehead it would mean “FINE.” If I did the sign “FATHER” by touching the
thumb of my right hand to my left-elbow (instead of touching it to my
forehead) the sign would become “meaningless.” Neither of which have
anything to do with the concept of “father.”
There are however some signs that can be inflected by changing the location
where the sign is produced. For example, you can do the sign “PAIN” near the
forehead to mean headache, near the jaw to mean toothache, or near the
stomach to mean stomachache. Or you could do the sign “PUT” up high to mean
“Put it up high.” Changing the location of the sign “adds” meaning to the
sign. The sign still means the same, we just have “more” information. Signs
that are able to be inflected in this way are called “locatives.”
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