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Pronoun copy and Yes/No sentences in ASL:


It is common for learners of American Sign Language to want to know: "What is the grammar of ASL?" Students want to be provided a few simple rules that will guide their fledgling (beginner) attempts at communicating in sign language.

When you begin studying ASL you will sometimes see sentences that repeat a pronoun at the end of a sentence. For example: YOU UNDERSTAND YOU? Repeating a pronoun is called "pronoun copy." You could also call putting such a pronoun at the end of a sentence: "using a terminal pronoun."

Instead of writing "use your index finger to point at something" we can just write (or type) letters IX.
The letters IX stand for "index" and/or to "point at something." The word "you" is considered a "second person pronoun" so you might see "Pro-2" as a short way to write "second person pronoun."

Since the sign for "you" tends to be done pointing your index finger at the person to whom you are talking if you are reading an ASL textbook the sentence "Do you understand?" -- might be written as:
IX-Pro-2 UNDERSTAND IX-Pro-2?
We are discussing a question that expects a yes or no answer -- this is known as a yes/no type question. Yes/no type questions use raised eyebrows at the end.
So, in ASL textbooks you might see something along the lines of:
"YOU UNDERSTAND YOU-[y/n]?" or:
IX-Pro-2 UNDERSTAND IX-Pro-2-[y/n]?
Or you might see a sentence shown with a line above the last part of the sentence and "y/n" on that line.
The point being that the author of the book is trying to get you to remember to raise your eyebrows when asking a question which can be answered with a "yes or no."

I recommend you think of the sentence "Do you understand?" -- this way: YOU UNDERSTAND do-YOU?
The first use of YOU would be done with a normal facial expression.
The "do-YOU" concept is signed with raised eyebrows to indicate it is a yes/no question. The reason we put the "do-YOU?" at the end is so that we don't have to keep our eyebrows raised throughout the whole sentence. Instead we can just raise our brows for a short time at the end of the sentence.

Your teacher might insist that you use "pronoun copy" for many of your basic "yes or no" type sentences.

If you value your grade, go ahead and sign however your teacher wants you to sign -- for at least as long as it takes you to get the grade you want.

Then after you have the grade you want -- go out and interact with real Deaf people and sign in the ways you see them signing. You will soon note that we Deaf sign in a lot of different ways.

This is no different from how you Hearing people talk.
You might go to an English class and your teacher might tell you to use a sentence such as: "Do you understand me?"

However, in real life, that phrase has many typical ways of being expressed in English:
1. "Understand!?!"
2. "You understand?!"
3. "You understand me!?"
4. "Do you understand me!?!"
5. "Dja understand me, huh?!
6. "Ya understand me!? Well, do you?!?
7. "Do you unnerstand me!? Well, do you?!? Dangit!"
8. "Geddit?"

All of which are "correct" in the sense that those versions are real, do happen, and are used with varying degrees of frequency by actual native speakers of English.

ASL students (understandably) want quick and easy grammar rules from which to extrapolate and thereby make their language acquisition process easier.

However, if adherence to a rule causes students to focus on specific structures to the exclusion of other valid structures it is quite possible that teaching or focusing on the rule will do more harm than good.

In real life Deaf people "check for understanding" in a wide variety of ways. The right way to "check for understanding" is made up of a whole spectrum of options. (Not just "YOU UNDERSTAND YOU?")

It is quite possible that the most common structure for "Do you understand?" -- is simply to sign:
"UNDERSTAND" while tilting the head forward slightly, raising the eyebrows, and looking at the person to whom you are signing. Where is the rule for that version? Did your teacher teach you that rule?

At some point we need to stop stating cute little ASL grammar rules and instead start explaining up front that ASL grammar is a spectrum of sign choices strongly tied to the amount of context in any particular signing situation.

Does that mean that there aren't actual grammar rules for ASL? Of course there are. There are so many rules you could write a book. Indeed many books have been written: ASL textbooks, books on ASL grammar, and books on ASL linguistics. However, we enter a state of ridiculousness the moment we start discussing what constitutes the right way to sign something without also discussing the context in which that signing occurs.

Using five signs strung together in a supposedly "accurate" word order (signing order) as advocated by a book, blog, or guru when you could have simply used "one sign" plus "context" -- means you have "in real life" signed badly (or in other words "have not signed like a native would in the same situation).

Here's the grammar rule your teacher should be sharing with you:
"Do it my way until you get the grade want. Keep in mind that there are almost certainly other ways."

 



 

Also see:  Pronoun Copy
Also see:  Pronoun Placement

 




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