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American Sign Language: "Morphemes"



In a message dated 10/4/2015 3:22:22 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, a student writes:
Hello Dr. Vicars,
Your practice test reads:
76. The fingerspelled letter C
a. Is a free morpheme
b. Is a free phoneme
c. Is a bound phoneme
d. None of the above
When I selected "None of the above", the correct answer on the quiz was "Is a free morpheme."  I thought in class you said that "C" was a bound morpheme because it has no meaning on it's own (you used the example of going up to a friend with the handshape and them not understanding). Could you please explain why it is a free morpheme?
Thank you,
________ (Name on File)

Dear _________,

Hello :)
Let's take a look at some imaginary scenarios:

Scenario 1:  
Suppose a person dies, falls to the ground, and their hand happens (randomly) to end up in the shape of an "O."

We couldn't even call that "handshape" a phoneme since you would be hard pressed to build a case that it is part of a sign.  It is just a random, meaningless handshape.

Scenario 2:
Suppose instead that the person moments earlier had signed "SODA-POP" and had a stroke and died and their non-dominant hand remained in the shape of an "O."  The forensic medical examiner might call you in as a consultant to ask what that "O" meant since witnesses said they saw the person doing a sign. The examiner wanted to know if deceased had been trying to spell someone's name starting with an "O" or if perhaps it meant the number "zero?"  Upon finding out from witnesses that the person had been signing "SODA-POP" you would then inform the examiner that the handshape didn't appear to mean anything by itself but rather it was part of a larger sign. It was therefore a phoneme.

Scenario 3:
It is the year 1994 and OJ Simpson (allegedly) just killed Nicole Simpson.  In her dying moments in an attempt to communicate to the world who killed her she forms one hand into an "O" handshape and the other into an "I/J" handshape.  The forensic scientist asks you what is the "sign" is for the letter "O" in American Sign Language. You show him the fingerspelled letter "O."  He asks you "Is that is just "part" of the ASL sign representing the English letter "O" or is that the whole sign?" He remembers learning the alphabet while growing up in England and seems to recall "O" having two handshapes. You point out to him that British Sign Language is different from ASL and that what you are showing him the ASL sign that means "O" in English.  He asks you "Can it be broken down further and still mean 'O'?"  You reply, "No. It is as small as it can get and still retain the meaning of 'O'. It is a free morpheme."

The case goes to trial and the jury decides that that in the context of the murder and consideration of Nicole's knowledge of sign language she was likely indeed using the handshape "O" as a sign to mean the English letter "O."  OJ Simpson is then sent to prison.

See? You just did your part to insure justice was served because you studied, paid attention, and asked questions during Dr. V's "ASL Structure and Usage Class!"

So a "C-handshape" can be any of the following:
1. A random, meaningless handshape.
2. A phoneme
3. A morpheme
Which it is depends on the context and usage.

The letter "c" can even be considered a word (lexeme) when you state: "I got a 'C' in my ASL class."

Good luck on the test!

Dr. V

p.s.  Wanna know the really amusing aspect of the above story?  During the real OJ Simson murder trial a reporter contacted me and asked me to evaluate faxed pictures of the handshapes of Nicole Simpson's dead hands to see if they might be spelling O and J.  I informed the reporter that to me one looked more like a mutated "T" and the other looked like a random handshape that might have been a "J" at one time but looks pretty random (like a claw) in the picture.  He then asked me if the "T" could have been an "O" at one point and then changed to a "T" when she died.  I informed him that it "might" be possible but not likely.  A few days later the story was printed in one of the nation-wide trash mags you find on the rack at grocery stores.  The reporter chose to misquote, partially-quote, and stretch things by reporting that I had informed him that "Nicole might have been signing an "O" and a "J."  Worse?  They printed the pictures!  Friends and colleagues came up to me for weeks showing me the letter "T" and sarcastically mouthing the letter "O."





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