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American Sign Language: Grammar (6)

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

A student asks: 
Is it accurate to state that in ditransitive verbs the recipient object is rarely expressed overtly at all and that it is only expressed as a verbal agreement?

Dear student,

Rather than stating, "the recipient object is rarely expressed overtly" I think it might be better to state something to the effect of, "In ditransitive verbs the recipient object (also known as the indirect or secondary object) is often articulated via movement and location rather than handshape."

To better understand "ditransitive verbs" (verbs which take a subject and two objects) in ASL it might help to take a look at the English sentence:  "Fred gave the book to Bob."

Consider what the English sentence did NOT say:  "(A man named) Fred gave (a) book to (a man) named Bob."
If in English we are able to simply say "Fred gave the book to Bob" it must be because three things have previously been identified in this conversation:
1. We already know about Fred
2. We already know about Bob
3. We already know about the book.
If our listener knows those three bits of information, we can get rid of "A man named" and we can use the word "the" instead of the word "a."

The fact that the English sentence is using the word "the" indicates that the book has been previously identified and so when signing the sentence in ASL the previously identified book now be incorporated into a classifier handshape that looks as if a person were holding a book (CLASSIFIER:"flattened C") and simultaneously move that classifier starting from the location of where Fred has been already been established and ending at the location where Bob has already been established. Thus the whole sentence will be accomplished with a single sign moved in a specific direction from and to specific locations accompanied by a slight nod of the head: 
Location-"FRED"-CLASSIFIER:"flattened C"-(give to)-location"Bob"-(nod).

Thus we see the recipient object being articulated via movement and location rather than handshape."

Let's now take a brief look at other constructions that might appear less often and consider why they might appear and how they would be expressed in ASL:

English sentence: "Fred gave Bob the book."  =  F-R-E-D GIVE-to B-O-B BOOK. 
Discussion: Such a sentence might be used to clarify that it was a book that Fred gave to Bob and not something else like a "disk."

English sentence: "The book was given to Bob by Fred." = BOOK?  WHO HAVE (rhetorical)? BOB.  WHO GIVE (rhetorical)? FRED. 
Why use such a weird sentence?  Suppose there are multiple objects being discussed and multiple people in our scenario? Such a sentence might be used to clarify that of various available objects it was a book that was given (not a candlestick), of the various people involved it is Bob who received it (not someone else), and it was given by Fred (not someone else).
English sentence: "Bob was given the book by Fred." = BOB?  GOT BOOK.  WHO GIVE?  FRED.
Why would someone sign it this way?  To clarify that of the people involved it was indeed the previously identified Bob who got the book. 

Now, just because such sentences are "possible" in ASL doesn't mean they are prominent. 
If considered out of context many "proper" sentences would be labeled "improper" by many ASL instructors.  Thus it is important that we know the context and intent of an utterance before we proclaim that it is correct or not.

William G. Vicars, Ed.D.
March 2009


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