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American Sign Language Grammar: "Sentence Structure"

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An ASL teacher recently asked me:

How do you sign 'afraid-of' (as opposed to 'afraid/fearful/scared?'
For years I've signed things such as:
Afraid of dogs: Sign: fearful, WH? Dogs
Surdophobia: Sign: fearful, WH? Deaf, people.
Afraid of flying: Sign: fearful, WH? airplane-in-flight
Am I correct in signing as I describe above? Or incorrect?
Or perhaps my way is a clumsy way of signing 'afraid-of?' and there's a better or more standard way?
- Cindy [Name changed for privacy.]


Dear Cindy,
Consider these sentences:
The ball was hit by the boy.
Cindy was scared by the dog.

The boy hit the ball.
The dog scared Cindy.

The ball? It was hit by the boy.
Cindy? She was scared by the dog.

Thus we have three examples of the many correct English sentence structures we can use to get our ideas across.

In ASL we can also use a variety of sentence structures of those to correctly sign the concept of being "afraid of" something.

1. I/ME AFRAID/SCARED OF-[fingerspelled] DOGS-[somewhat-lexicalized-fingerspelling] [head-nod]. = ("I'm afraid of dogs.")

2. DOG SCARE I/ME [head-nod]. = ("Dogs scare me.")

3. DOG-[rhetorical]? AFRAID I/ME! [head-nod] = ("Dogs? They scare me!")

Plus I think it is important that we address the aspect of signing that has to do with recognizing that "context" is a very real and important factor in ASL grammar. Thus a forth way to express the concept of being afraid of dogs is:

4. [context] + I/ME AFRAID/SCARED DOG. In context it is obvious that you are the one that is afraid (not the dog). Example: Signer A: "YOU WANT PET MY DOG?" Signer B: "NO. I/ME AFRAID DOG." Your conversation partner is not going to think that you are claiming that you will scare his or her dog.

You asked if there is a better or more standard way of signing such sentences.

In general the best way becomes the standard way over time. The best way to sign something is the zenith of the combination of "efficiency" and "clarity."

Zenith: "the time at which something is most powerful or successful." (Google, 2016)

The "zenith" (or best way to sign something) is going to depend on context.

Suppose you are at a party and ask a friend "BOB WHERE?" (Where is Bob?)

Your friend could reply many different ways but let's compare two options:

Option 1. BOB HERE PARTY. BOB STAND 30-FT MY RIGHT. MARY [depictive-sign-1-handshape]-"standing_here"-[rhetorical] BOB-[depictive-sign-1-handshape]-"standing_next-to_Mary." = "Bob is here at the party standing next to Mary 30 feet off to my right."

Option 2: INDEX-(Bob) = Point at Bob. = "Over there."

I think it is fairly obvious that in real life most of us would prefer our conversation partner to point at Bob rather than launch into "story time."

Now, suppose an ASL student asks an ASL teacher, "How do I sign, 'Bob is here at the party standing next to Mary 30 feet off to my right,'?"

The tendency for an ASL teacher is to launch into a lesson on the signs for HERE, PARTY, STAND, ... and so forth.

What the ASL teacher should do instead is ask the student, "What is the context?" [If the context isn't already perfectly clear.]

The right answer to the student's question might be to inform him/or her to simply "point" at Bob.

We want to create signers who are skilled communicators and not simply robots with large vocabularies.

Teachers who spend their time teaching vocabulary are wasting their time*.  Nearly all students now have access to the internet. Those who don't have access at home can instead access the net at school or a local library.

Students can and should be assigned to go online and learn (for example) the sign for PARTY (all four common variations of the signs for "party" and the recommended version) then come back to class where they will then be given the opportunity to use the sign in conversation with another student under the watchful eye of the instructor who now has plenty of time (or at least more time than instructors who waste time teaching vocabulary) to provide corrective or affirmative real-time feedback.

If you were a student, which class would you prefer?
1. The class where the teacher stood there and signed a list of vocabulary then went home and signed to a mirror, or...
2. The class where you learned the vocabulary as homework and then went to class and engaged in plenty of interactive practice with classmates, received plenty of feedback, and played lots of fun games (because your teacher didn't have to waste time standing there signing to you a list of vocabulary words).

If a teacher doesn't like the versions of signs that are online he/she should do one of two things:
1. Inform the webmaster or site-owner of desired/requested versions of the sign, or...
2. The instructor should just go ahead and create his/her own online materials!

[For the record, I love it when an instructor contacts me and (politely) recommends that I add to a version of a sign or recommends a correction or improvement to an existing page.]

- Dr. Bill
William G. Vicars, Ed.D.


* My statement that "teaching vocabulary (in-person) is a waste of time" needs to be viewed in the context of the typical college or high school ASL course that could be "flipped" via the use of technology.  However, teaching vocabulary "in-person" is not a waste of time if "you" personally enjoy teaching vocabulary, have plenty of time, and your students would rather learn from a real live human-being instead of a computer.

I keep having to remind myself that more efficient doesn't always equal "better."


If we wanted to express the concept of:
"Jack is afraid.  Do you want to know why Jack is afraid? Its the dogs."
That would look like this:  JACK AFRAID. WHY?-[rhetorical-eyebrows-up], DOGS-[head-nod].

Let's now consider the difference between a "WH"-question expression and a "rhet"-question expression.

[what]-REASON? uses a "WH"-question expression and can mean "What is the reason for that?" or "What is your reason for doing that?" or "For what reason?"

1.  SCARED-["WH"-question-furrowed-eyebrows]  =  What are you scared for? What is the reason you are scared?
2.  SCARED WHY-[rhetorical-eyebrows-up] = Someone or something is scared or scary. Would you like to know why?

The problem with using SCARED-["WH"] (the furrowed brow version of scared) is that it is intended to elicit actual answer from your audience.  Furrowed brow questions are not intended to be used as rhetorical questions

If you want to answer your own question rhetorically -- you raise the eyebrows.  The designation for that is "rhet."

Signs that tend to have built in facial expressions (such as AFRAID) are problematic as far as applying additional facial grammar (such as the raised eyebrows used in "rhet").   If you are already raising your eyebrows to indicate "fear" you cannot simultaneously indicate a rhetorical question with that same eyebrow raise. Instead you need to add an additional sign such as "WHY-[rhet]?"

This is one of the reasons why we tend to use "pronoun copy" at the end of sentences.  (An example of pronoun copy is when you add YOU at the end of a sentence that began with YOU.)  Consider how you would ask someone if they are mad.  If you just signed: "YOU MAD?" -- it does not work well.  Try it.  You can't easily ask "Are you mad?" by signing YOU MAD?  The reason for this is because the sign MAD comes with a built-in facial expression (furrowed brows)  that is the opposite of the "YES/NO-question" facial expression using raised-eyebrows.  So we instead end up signing YOU MAD YOU? -- which could be thought of as "You seem mad. Is that true?" or "YOU MAD. [are]-YOU?"







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