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ASL Grammar (16)

Grammar links:  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 1516 | 17 | 18 
Also see: Inflection

An ASL instructor emailed:

Dear Dr. Bill,
Can you tell me which of the following (if any) is the most common way to ask the question: "Do you (know) (use) ASL?"
You, know, ASL, you?
You, use, ASL, you?
You, ASL, you?
ASL, you?
You, sign language, you?
You, sign, you?
Other? If so please offer it?
- Bob (name changed to protect his privacy)


Hello Bob!
Good morning. :)
Great question! (About how to ask if someone else signs).

In general I would sign that by pointing at the person, raising my eyebrows and doing the S/5 version of "SIGN."

The sign for "SIGN/signing/sign-language/to-sign" is in transition from the "index fingers" version to the increasingly popular S/loose-hands version. It is likely that the emerging version of "SIGN/signing/sign-language/to-sign" will be used by those who live in Deaf-population-dense areas where interaction rates are higher and thus evolution and adoption of new signs is higher.

If a person "signs ASL" we can infer that the person already "knows" ASL -- thus asking if a person "knows" ASL is redundant. Compare:

1. Do you know how to drive a car?
2. Do you know how to drive?
3. Do you drive?
4. You drive?

Each of those questions are appropriate depending on the context:
1. Do you know how to drive a car? [Asked to someone sitting on a motorcycle.]
2. Do you know how to drive? [Asked to someone interviewing for a job.]
3. Do you drive? [Asked to a person applying for life insurance.]
4. You drive? [Asked to a second person after having already asked someone else, "Do you drive?"]

In regard to the question of "Do you (know) (use) ASL?" -- the first thing to consider is do we need to start the sentence with the YOU sign?

If no one else is around and it is obvious I'm signing to "you" I am less likely to need/want to waste time and effort signing YOU at the beginning of my sentence.

If however "you" are standing next to someone else I will be more likely to start my sentence with the YOU sign.

Another thing to consider is that the YOU at the end of a yes/no question sentence is done with raised eyebrows. The raised eyebrows functionally take on the role filled by the verb "do" in English questions.

[context]+[raised-eyebrows] = Do? Did? Were? Will? Are?

In ASL we can compound (combine) these two concepts:
([context]+[raised-eyebrows]) + YOU = "do-YOU?"

I think that in general it would be good for a student to know how to sign:
1. YOU SIGN do-YOU?-[version-1-advanced-S/loose-hands]
2. YOU SIGN do-YOU?-[version-2-basic-index-fingers]

Note: The lowercase "do" is not signed in the above examples -- it is simply my personal / unconventional way of glossing the question form of YOU.

1. SIGN do-YOU?-[version-1-advanced-S/loose-hands] Context: You see someone incorporate a sign or gesture in their communication and think the person might know ASL.

2. YOU SIGN?-[version-2-basic-index-fingers] Context: You think the person might know basic signing.

3. ASL do-YOU? [fingerspelled version of ASL] [Context: Can be used in general situations. Also used if the person was observed doing signed English or mouthing English and you want to find out if the person knows ASL.]

4. YOU KNOW ASL? [Context: Your new roommate mentions having a Deaf brother].

5. YOU USE ASL? [Context: Your new roommate mentions being a teacher's aide for a teacher of the Deaf.]

Question: Why do we not always need to complete a yes/no question by repeating the pronoun (sometimes called "pronoun copy") at the end?

Answer: The (likely) reason why ASL evolved to put question signs at the end of sentences is that it is awkward (and takes effort) to hold raised (or lowered) eyebrows for an extended length of time. Raising or lowering our eyebrows requires a very small amount of work (but it is still work!). By moving the question words to the end of a sentence we reduce the amount of work involved in producing the sentence. If a sentence is "very short" it is not much more work to raise our eyebrows throughout the whole sentence. That is why we are more likely to see rightward movement of WH-question signs (WHO? WHEN? WHAT? WHERE?) or "question-form pronoun copy" (do-YOU?) on longer sentences than shorter sentences such as "WHO SHE?" and "YOU HAVE?"

- Dr. Bill





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