The Grammar of ASL

The Grammar of ASL

A Story by Courtney

Addressing American Sign Language as it's own complete language.


The Grammar of American Sign Language


            Many hearing people, when they think of American Sign Language (ASL), assume that the language itself is a signed form of English. This is not the case " ASL and signed English are two different languages entirely. Signed English combines English grammar with ASL hand signs while ASL has its own grammar system with phonology, morphology, and syntax that is its own. As with any language translation, much of the nuance in the signs in ASL are lost when they are translated into English.

Sign Language as a Complete Language

            The idea that sign language is a complete language of its own and not a lesser form of spoken communication is a relatively new idea in linguistic studies. In order for a language to grow, develop, and last, it needs a stable community of people to meet and communicate regularly. “In the case of sign language, these conditions are usually met only when the education system gathers deaf children together, when a critical mass of deaf people forms its own social and cultural institutions, or both, and both are recent social phenomena.” (Arnoff) No known sign language can be traced back more than three hundred years, which makes it a relatively new language system, while American Sign Language can be traced back two hundred and fifty years, which makes it a relatively old sign language. (Arnoff) To put it into context, the English language developed from German into its own cultural dialect approximately 2000 years ago. It has been noticed that all well-studied sign languages have a complex binary morphology and that the grammatical categories as well as the forms they take were found to show strong cross-linguistic similarities in their morphological structures. (Arnoff)

            Because most deaf children are born to hearing parents (approximately 90%) there are very few “natural speakers” of this language " which would constitute only of deaf children born of deaf parents, who were exposed to ASL from birth. Even in this case, deaf parents were usually born to hearing parents, and were first-generation signers themselves. Sign language in general arises spontaneously when people who do not share a common language communicate. “Most deaf children are not exposed to a full-fledged language in early childhood, and so develop a linguistic system on the basis of impoverished and inconsistent input… and these conditions present themselves anew with each generation of deaf children.” (Arnoff) These factors contribute to what could be called the language’s ‘youngness.’ “As young languages acquired from impoverished and inconsistent input, then, sign languages are expected to manifest prototypical creole properties that are rooted in newness. Moreover, the creolization process recurs for every generation of signers, which means that sign languages are expected to retain these properties longer than spoken-language creoles.” (Arnoff)

ASL and English

            Traditionally, the way sign language has been taught was by hearing teachers trying to incorporate hand signs into the grammar of English. This is a language system known as “Signed English,” and it is an artificial language in which speaking and signing occur simultaneously. The word order follows that of the spoken language and the lexical signs maintain only the bare root meaning. Much of the nuance and subtlety of ASL is lost in translation, which leaves many people to assume that it is a ‘lesser’ form of communication. “Signed English uses the vocabulary of sign language to display English visually by putting the signs in English word order. In effect, they take the vocabulary of one language and use it with the grammar of another… Since there is not a one-to-one equivalency between ASL signs and English words these artificial systems employ additional signs invented specifically to reflect English syntax.” (Costello) Signed English is not considered a ‘natural’ language because there are no native speakers. However, over the years, some of the signs and structures of signed English have been incorporated into the ASL vocabulary. Signed English structures try to incorporate all the small linking words such as “it,” “so,” “the,” & etc. when signing. However, ASL incorporates these words into other signs, using non-manual markers like body language and facial expression, or through a process known as indexing, all of which will be discussed later.

            In linguistic studies, the smallest unit of sound in spoken language is a phoneme, which is generally understood to mean a sound. Phonemes are strung together to create meaningful units of sound, which is known as the phonology of the language. There are a finite number of sounds that a person can make, and of those, only a selected group is used in a given language. These sounds are created by differences in the place of articulation and the manner of articulation in which they are produced in the vocal tract and mouth. Phonology is generally described as the branch of linguistics concerned with sounds in languages. Because ASL is an independent language with its own phonology, this definition can be a little confusing since the deaf do not have a sound structure in their language. “Just as the words in a spoken language consist of specific combinations of individual sounds (vowels and consonants), so each of the “words” in ASL consists of a combination of gestures. These gestural components fall into certain clearly defined categories: the location in which the sign is produced in relation to the body; the handshape(s) used in formation of the sign; the movement of the hands used in executing the sign; and finally, the orientation of the palms.” (Costello) Like with spoken phonemes, these are the four basic features that constitute the place and manner of signed phonemes in sign language. The motion of ASL follows the basic consonant-vowel-consonant formation of English words by portraying pauses like spoken consonants and movements like vowels.

            Traditionally, sign language phonology has been based on a system of movements and holds in works by Liddell, Liddell, and Johnson in 1989, or by movements and location in works by Sandler in 1986. These studies view movement and non-movement as the equivalent of syllables in a spoken language, similar to the flow and stops of air through the vocal tract. Moreover, the signs are made in a visual-spatial area that concludes of high/mid/low and left/right areas. Linguistically, this space can be broken into a 3x3 grid, with each area conveying a different meaning when used in context with signs, stops, and motion. Though timing and duration are important aspects of sign language, new vocabulary words in the language are more often achieved by manipulating the parameters of handshape, location, and movement for the entire sign and not just by manipulating the movement and hold portions of the signs. (Brentari)

The sign morpheme, however, unlike the morpheme or word of spoken language, is seen as simultaneously, not sequentially produced. Analysis of the sign morpheme, then, cannot be segmentation in time, but must be aspectual. The aspects of a sign that appear to have the same order of importance and the same part in the language structure as segmental phonemes of speech are the aspects of configuration, place, and action. (Corina)

Often, in ASL, a phonological feature will extend across the whole syllable or phrase, with the result that the initial and final placement of sign that are nearly identical while the movement is merely transitional, inheriting the features of the surrounding signs. In addition, ASL often incorporates the use of two-handed signs, which combined with placement and movement, produces a quick series of gestures that includes an entire sentence’s worth of information simultaneously.

As with English sounds, there are a finite number of signs that can be made in ASL, and there are rules governing meaning based on the four phonological elements of the signs discussed previously. “Fewer than fifty different handshapes exist, and there are at most, twenty-five different locations relative to the body where signs can be made in connection with some twelve movements and twelve orientations.” (Costello) These rules that govern the meaningful use of signs make up the morphology of ASL, and most signs prefer monosyllabic phonemes, consisting of a stop-gesture-stop (or consonant-vowel-consonant) formation.

            ASL morphology is binary in nature , consisting of complex simultaneous signs and sequential affixation. Unlike spoken English, ASL has the ability to convey several nuances of meaning simultaneously using a visual-spatial structure available that is not possible in any spoken language. “The morphological properties of sign languages can be understood only if the relationship between the spatial nature of the medium and visuo-spatial cognition is explicitly taken into account.” (Arnoff) This can best be exemplified in the role of iconicity in sign languages.

Signs that in part or in whole resemble a physical referent or mimic some sort of action are identified as iconic. The sign for DEER (Costello) is both hands, open palms facing each other with thumbs on either temple and fingers spread " the hands mimic the antlers of a buck to create the symbol that symbolizes the animal. It is a popular misconception that sign languages are exclusively based on iconity. While a large number of signs do reflect iconity, it is more out of an ingenious use of the time/space medium available rather than a more rudimentary form of communication. Another use of iconity would to use the round handshape of the strong hand with a movement next to a flat shape, signaled by the weak hand " a sign phrase that consists of a two-handed stop, move, stop gesture that roughly translates to: PUT ROUND OBJECT NEXT TO FLAT OBJECT; which could be more finely translated into English as: “Put the coffee mug by the book,” though only in context, or by indexing. All the information in the translated sentence is incorporated in a few brief seconds simultaneously, not sequentially, as it is in an English sentence. Iconity is not restricted to visual-spatial restrictions, but also includes metaphorical gestures. For example, the word BOSS uses the shoulder location as an icon of the English metaphor of responsibility as a weight on one’s shoulders. (Cates)

            Compounding is a common process in both English and ASL in which two distinct words are put together to form a single new word. Many of these new compounds have meanings that cannot be derived from the original meaning of the two words. Some examples are BLUE^SPOT (bruise), THINK^SPECIFIC (goal), and SLEEP^SUNRISE (oversleep). When the morphological processes of the language are taken into context, such as the verb meaning ‘regularly,’ the subject is repeated. In the case of SLEEP^SUNRISE, the repetition would be of the two-part complete sign rather than one of the compounding words, which provides support that SLEEP^SUNRISE is treated as a single word in the compound rather than two.

            Like all languages, ASL tends to develop along a ‘path of least resistance,’ in which the simplest, most general form of signs are kept and reintegrated into the language in new ways, while the more difficult, specific signs and handshapes relax and fade out of use. Compounds in ASL can be identified two ways: timing and change. A compound sign consists of three parts: the first sign, the transition between signs, and the second sign. “Chinchor points out that diachronically, compounds often reduce from bisyllabic to monosyllabic CVC forms [consonant-vowel-consonant or sign-movement-sign order of formation]. (Corina)  Klima and Bellugi found that the duration of the first sign was less than half the duration of the second part of the compound. (Liddell) This increase in speed produces an ASL compounding process which changes the individual signs and produces new words by changes that occur in the adaption of the two signs into one.

            One prominent example is in the sign THINK^SELF, which means to use one’s own judgment. The two signs by themselves consist of two separate handshapes and gestures, which would equate four syllables in spoken English. As a compound, they consist of three, with the sign THINK losing its only syllabic segment to become a part of the movement to the beginning position of SELF. Also, the thumb is extended in the sign THINK and extended throughout the entire sign, instead of extending for the end handshape of SELF.

            Another process that is common to both English and ASL grammar is the formation of a particular noun. Suffixes such as "er, -or, or "ist can be added to an English word to mean “person who…” ASL has a person morpheme that acts in essentially the same way. A person marker sign is made using both hands, palms flat and parallel making a short downward motion along the waist. (Costello) The English noun “teacher” is signed in ASL by using the sign TEACH and the person marker sign. However, much of the English affixations are performed by far less markers in ASL. While affixation is a common linguistic device in English, it is quite rare in ASL.

            For example, the concept of pluralization may be expressed in a number of ways in ASL. The most common way is to indicate a number before the plural noun, but no change from the noun itself, no bound morpheme to make it plural. In ASL, cats would be either <3,5,8> CAT or HORDE CAT. Plural nouns can also be identified by a reduplication of the sign one or more times. Most of the time, however, the function communicated by the affix in English is carried out by a separate, independent sign. For example, the sign for ‘unbelievable’ is signed in two words: NOT BELIEVE.

ASL language uses space to divide the language into a number of grammatical systems. For example, tense is established along a ‘timeline’ that extends over the shoulder for past, at a neutral location in front for present, and forward for the future. When I sign YESTERDAY, ME WALK SCHOOL, the sign ‘walk’ would be understood as ‘walked’ because of the past tense marker at the beginning of the signed sentence. The more exaggerated the gesture symbolizing the placement in time, the further along the line it is. ASL users have a tendency to inflect their signs to modify meaning, such as a rapid repetition or movement exaggeration that can be understood like the English word ‘very.’ Another use of space in ASL is in the signing of directional verbs, which are verbs signed with a movement to imply the direction of an action.

Frequently, ASL uses space to function as pronouns do in the English language, a system of referent which is known as indexing. Indexing means pointing or even simply glancing a location specified for a noun instead of signing the name of the referent. In indexing, if the referent is present, it is simply pointed to and meant HE or THAT. “If the person is not there, if you have identified him by spelling his name or some other method of identification, then you can “index” him to a point in space. Once you have set up a referent, you can refer back to that same point each time you want to talk about the person.” (Vicars) So if I index Mary to the left and Susan to the right, I can sign GIVE^TO from left to right to indicate that Mary gave something to Susan. Or the GIVE^TO sign could be made from close to my body towards the left referent to say that I gave something to Mary. A sweeping motion from left to right would indicate the pronouns THEY or THEM.

            One common suffix added to ASL is the negation suffix. There are several ways of expressing this negative suffix, both manually and non-manually. The negative suffix that is usually attached to a verb is a one-handed sign in which the fingers form the shape of a zero, which is the sign for ‘none at all’ in free form. For example the combination of signs SEE ZERO would translate loosely into English as “see nothing at all.” The reason that this particular form is considered a suffix is that it must always come after and never before its stem verb. “This is significant in light of the fact that word order in ASL is relatively free, and that the related independent word can indeed occur before or after verbs.” (Arnoff) The non-manual negation suffix is a facial expression in ASL where the brows are drawn together and accompanied by a slight shake of the head.

            Non-manual additions to signs play an important part in the grammar of ASL. Facial expression and body language can convey information in much the same way as intonation does for speech. “In English, intonation or punctuation can make the difference between a statement and a question, or between a question and a command. In ASL, this function is carried out by non-manual cues.” (Costello) In addition, non-manual signals (or body language) carry out cues for intensification, modification of verbs, adverbs of manner, and indexing. Often, these non-manual modifications are left out when translating ASL into English, and the nuance of the gesture is lost in translation.

            The morphology of ASL is largely different than in English, with the word order being relatively free and following a ‘topic’ ‘predicate’ arrangement. When establishing tense, a time-frame is established and is stable throughout the sentence, giving it a ‘time’ ‘topic’ ‘predicate’ formation. Quite often ASL signers will use the object of the sentence as the topic, in a form coined “topicalization.”  (Vicars) For example, the sentence, “I washed my car last week” would be signed WEEK^PAST, MY CAR, I WASH. However, subject-verb-object sentence structures do exist in ASL and work particularly well in dealing with transitive verbs. One interesting feature of ASL is that it does not use ‘be’ verbs at all. (Costello) The English sentence “I am a teacher” would be translated into TEACHER ME or ME TEACHER. Although either form is correct, ASL signers generally prefer to use ME TEACHER because it feels more correct.

            American Sign Language is a complete, albeit young language consisting of its own grammar system. The phonology, morphology, and syntax structures are unique to ASL, sharing similarities with other languages, but including its own structures that make it a unique language. Because ASL is often translated into American English to enable the deaf and hard of hearing to communicate with the hearing population , much of the nuance of the language is lost in translation. This leads many hearing people to conclude that ASL is a rudimentary or lesser language than English. This is simply not true. The depth and texture of the entire language is far too extensive to cover in such a small essay, but it is clear that American Sign Language has its own, unique grammar system.  



Works Cited

Arnoff, Meir, and Sandler. "The Paradox of Sign Language Morphology." The Linguistic Society of America 81:2 June 2005: 301-344. Print.

"ASL 'Syllables' and Language Evolution: A Response to Uriagereka." Linguistic Society of America 77.2 (June, 2001): 343-349. Print.

Brentari, Diane. "Establishing a Sonority Hierarchy in American Sign Language: The Use of Simultaneous Structure in Phonology." Phonology 10.2 1993: 281-306. Print.

Cates, Gutierrez, Hafer, Barett, and Corina. "Location, Location, Location." Sign Language Studies 14:4 Summer 2013. Print.

Corina, David and Sandler, Wendy. "On the Nature of Phonological Structures in Sign Language." Phonology 10.2 (1993): 165-207. Print.

Costello, Elaine, Ph.D. "American Sign Language in Context." Costello, Elaine, Ph.D. American Sign Language Dictionary. New York: Random House, 1998. vi-xxix. Print.

Liddell, Scott K. and Johnson, Robert E. "American Sign Language Compound Formation Processes, Lexicalization, and Phonological Remnants." Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 4.4 (1986): 445-513. Print.

Vicars, William G., Ed.D. March 2009. Print. 9 December 2013.



© 2015 Courtney

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Added on April 14, 2015
Last Updated on April 14, 2015
Tags: ASL, American, Sign, Language, essay, courtney, hurd



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