A Few Basics of ASL Linguistics
Sarah L. Rizer
American Sign Language (ASL) is a complex visual-spatial language that
is used by the Deaf community in the United States and English-speaking
parts of Canada. It is a linguistically complete, natural language. It is
the native language of many Deaf men and women, as well as some hearing
children born into Deaf families. Some of the basic studies in the
linguistics of ASL are: morphemes, phonemes, theory called
hold-movement-hold, semantics, pragmatics, and understanding the five
A Few Basics of ASL Linguistics
ASL is a unique language with its own grammatical rules and syntax
(sentence structure). In ASL the entire body is used expressively to
convey information. With ASL you have to abandon "English thinking" and
think visually. (Moore & Levitan, 1993). American Sign Language is a
complex visual-spatial language that shares no grammatical similarities to
English. Hand gestures, facial features such as eyebrow motion and
lip-mouth movements are significant in ASL as they for a crucial part of
the grammatical system. ASL makes use of the space surrounding the signer
to describe places and persons that are not present. (Nakamura, 2002).
Some of the basic studies in the linguistics of ASL are; morphemes,
phonemes, theory called hold-movement-hold,
semantics, pragmatics, and understanding the
five registers. Morphology - the study of morphemes
- a unit of language that is meaningful, can't be broken down into smaller
meaningful units, and can be broken down into smaller units that do not
have independent meaning. There are free morphemes
- words that have meaning by themselves and don't need to be attached to
some other word to have meaning. For example; the sign zebra is a free
morpheme, you can't break it down into smaller meaningful parts. There are
bound morphemes - morphemes that must be
attached to another morpheme, and if unattached, it becomes meaningless.
For example: the sign cat - cats, adding the "s" changes meaning to more
that one, and the "s" becomes meaningless if signed alone. There are
inflectional morphemes - never create a new word but only a
different form of the same word. There are derivational morpheme
- changes the meaning of part of speech of a word they attach to. (Riggs,
Some Examples of ASL Morphology
sit - chair (added movement for chair, changes in meaning
cat - cats (added "S" changes meaning to more than one [bound
zebra (can't break it down into smaller meaningful parts [free
book - open-book (noun/verb changes in meaning)
again - often (movement causes a change in meaning)
teach - teacher (adding person ending or the "agent" affix changes
the meaning of the word)
Phonology - the study of phonemes - the smallest units of
language comprised of 5 parameters; handshape, movement, location, palm
orientation, and non-manual markers.
Some Examples of Phonology - Parameters
girl, not, remember (same handshape, different location)
onion, apple (same handshape, different location)
mom, fingerspell, dad (same handshape, different locations, different
palm orientation for fingerspell)
sit, train (different movement)
want, freeze (different palm orientation)
now, can (one movement, different handshapes)
Hold-Movement-Hold theory is a series of sequential
movements and holds and is the most common expression. Some examples would
be: king, Queen, prince, parents, lord, regular, Jesus, body, discus, and
home. (Riggs, 2003).
Syntax is how space is used for grammar, word order. In
American Sign language, we have a different syntax. In
general, the order of our words in a sentence follows a "TOPIC""COMMENT"
arrangement. This could also be called "subject" + "predicate" sentence
structure. Plus you will often see this structure: "TIME" + "TOPIC" +
For example: "WEEK-PAST ME WASH CAR" or "WEEK-PAST CAR WASH ME."
Semantics means its meaning, and Pragmatics
is how language is used. A register (or style) is a label
for the way we vary our speech or sign when we communicate with people in
different settings, and this depends on the closeness or distance we feel
to that individual (or group) because of authority, goal, or acquaintance.
There are 5 different registers; Frozen, Formal, Consultative,
Informal-Casual, and Intimate. Having an understanding of these registers
will help to communicate better in different situations. (Bar-Tzur, 2001).
Moore, Matthew & Levitan, Linda. (1993). For Hearing People Only.
Rochester, New York: Deaf Life Press.
Nakamura, Karen. (2002 March 28). ASL Linguistics. <Http://www.deaflibrary.org/asl.html>.
Riggs, Tom. (2003) Introduction to the Linguistics of ASL. Signs
of Development CD #1 & #2.
Vicars, William. (1996)ASL 101 - Syntax. ASL University Library.
Lifeprint Institute. <http://lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/syntax.htm>.
Bar-Tzur, David. (2001 October 18). Frozen register and the
translation process from English to ASL. https://web.archive.org/web/20090102110526/http://www.theinterpretersfriend.com/pd/ws/frozn-rgstr/text.html.