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Linguistics of American Sign Language

  • Linguistics – the scientific study of language
  • Syntax – word order, sentence structure
    • in English (usually): SVO
      • S = subject
      • V = verb
      • O = object
    • in ASL: SVO, SOV, OSV, OVS, VOS, and VSO
  • System of Communication – Morse code, smoke signals; whales, bees, birds
  • Language Properties
    • Arbitrary – not having any obvious basis or connection
      • APPLE, GOOD
    • Iconic – a word/sign symbolizes that concept; derived from the sound or image itself
    • Changes over time
      • historical sign of WILL to modern sign of WILL
      • historical sign of HELP to modern sign of HELP
      • historical sign of TELEPHONE to modern sign of TELEPHONE
    • Introduces new ideas
    • Can be manipulated
    • Rule-governed
    • Shared community
  • Phonology – the study of the smallest units of words
    • spoken language –  phonemes
      • voice
      • mouth
      • placement of tongue
    • signed language – parameters
  • The phonology of American Sign Language are the five parameters
    1. Handshapes
      • A-Z and its variations (closed, open, spread-out, etc.)
      • Numbers
      • Classifiers – see classifiers
    2. Palm orientations
      • the direction of the palm of the hand
        • up, down, away from the signer’s face, toward the signer’s face, diagonally, etc.
    3. Locations (starting point of movement)
    4. Movements
      • tapping/touching
      • forward
      • backward
      • circular
      • alternating
      • simultaneously
    5. Non-manual signals (NMS)
      • Facial expressions (eyebrows)
      • Mouth morphemes (shapes of lips to describe action or thing)
      • Body languages
  • William Stokoe
    • An English professor at Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University)
    • first to recognize American Sign Language as a natural language
    • wrote and published the Sign Language Structure in 1960
    • wrote and published the Dictionary of American Sign Language in 1965
  • Stokoe System
    • a precursor to the Five Parameters of American Sign Language
    • handshape, location, and movement
    • used in Dictionary of British Sign Language
  • Robbin Battison
    • linguistic researcher
    • added two more parameters: palm orientation and non-manual signals
  • Symmetry Condition
    • part of Battison’s research
    • two-handed signs, where both hands are in motion, must have the same handshape
    • examples given: MAYBE, CAN, FAMILY
  • Dominance Condition
    • part of Battison’s research
    • two-handed signs where only one hand is in motion
      • examples are given: COLLEGE, TREE
    • have different handshapes – non-dominant (passive) hand does not move
      • an example is given: JUMP
  • Seven Basic Handshapes
    • part of Battison’s research
    • related to the dominance condition (rule)
    • B, A, S, C, O/0, 1, and 5 are the basic shapes of the non-moving non-dominant (passive) hand
  • Phonemes
    • the smallest unit of sound or sign
    • have no meaning by themselves BUT when used as part of a sign/word, they do affect the meaning of the sign/word
    • are used as “building blocks” of a word (English) or sign (ASL)
  • Levels of the Linguistic System
    • Discourse
      • Pragmatics
        • Semantics
          • Syntax
            • Morphology
              • Phonology
                • Phonetics
  • Morphology
    • studies of the rules for forming admissible words
    • REMEMBER – ASL has vibrant morphological aspects; therefore, there are MANY morphological words
  • Morpheme
    • the smallest meaningful unit of a sound/sign
    • can be “free” or “bound”
  • Free Morpheme
    • can stand alone
    • can have other “bound” morphemes added to it in order to change the meaning
  • Bound Morpheme
    • in English – prefix, suffix, infix
    • cannot stand alone and is added to a “free” morpheme to change the meaning
    • English: -s, -ed, -ing, etc.
    • ASL: (verb-sign)-REPEATEDLY, (verb-sign)-CONTINUALLY
    • more ASL: 3-YEAR, 4-MONTH, 5-OF-US
  • Inflectional Morpheme
    • the morpheme which is added does not change the grammatical function of the word
    • a noun remains a noun, a verb remains a verb
    • English: chair becomes chairs
  • Derivational Morpheme
    • the morpheme added actually changes the KIND/TYPE of word it is
    • a verb might become a noun or vice-versa
    • ASL: PAINT becomes PAINTER when added a PERSON/AGENT marker
    • an adjective becomes an adverb
    • English: beautiful becomes beautifully
    • meaning is changed
    • English: happy becomes unhappy
    • ASL: LIKE becomes DON’T-LIKE when signed with added negative head-shake
  • Noun-Verb Pairs
    • an aspect of morphology (see Derivational Morpheme)
    • the movement is changed therefore NOUN = multiple small motion and VERB = single large motion
    • except: FOOD-EAT, DRINK-DRINK
  • Compounds
    • an aspect of morphology (see Derivational Morpheme)
    • English: greenhouse (not a green house per se, a transparent plastic or glass enclosure in which plants are grown that need protection from the cold weather)
    • ASL: BOY+SAME is brother, not BOY SAME as in The boy is the same.
  • Lexicalized Fingerspelling
    • an aspect of morphology
    • fingerspelling being borrowed from English that looks like a sign
    • used to be called fingerspelled loan signs
  • Loan Signs
    • signs that are borrowed from other countries
  • Eight Possible Changes for Lexicalized Fingerspelling
    1. letters deleted
    2. change in location
    3. change in handshape
    4. change in movement
    5. change in palm orientation
    6. movement reduplicated
    7. add second hand
    8. non-manual signals being included
  • Numeral Incorporation
    • an aspect of morphology
    • numbers can be incorporated into signs to change the meaning
    • number of pronouns, height, a period of time, dollar amount, sports score
  • Classifiers
    • An aspect of morphology
    • affixed word/sign that is used to indicate certain semantic/grammatical categories
  • Eight Types of Classifiers Used in American Sign Language (remember acronym: P. Dibbles)
    1. Plural Classifiers
    2. Descriptive Classifiers including SASSers
      1. Sizes and ...
      2. … Shapes Specifiers
    3. Instrumental Classifiers including
      1. Tools
    4. Body
    5. Body Parts
    6. Locative
    7. Elemental
    8. Semantic
  • Predicate
    • one of the two main constituents of a sentence
    • a sentence will have the “subject” and the “predicate.”
    • the predicate contains the verb and its components (adverb, object, etc.)
  • Classifier Predicates
    • an aspect of morphology
    • the classifier is used to add the “action” or verb-action of the statement
    • CAR (CL:3-hand) DRIVE-BY
      • these have two aspects – handshape and movement roots
  • Subject-Object Agreement
    • an aspect of morphology
    • the subject of the sentence must agree with the object
    • ASL: directional verbs
      • TELL-HER versus TELL-ME
      • I-HELP-YOU versus YOU-HELP-ME versus HE-HELP-HER
  • Locative Verbs
    • an aspect of morphology
    • these signs that are signed at a particular location on the body in order to add meaning
    • #FOOD across the forehead = “Can’t stop thinking about food because I am hungry!”
    • #HURT on arm = “My arm hurts” or can indicate the specific location where it hurts
  • Time in ASL
    • an aspect of morphology
    • movement is added to indicate meaning
    • examples are given: EVERY-NIGHT, EVERY-TUESDAY
    • not part of Temporal aspect
  • Transitive Verbs
    • verbs that require a direct object to be named in the statement
    • English: word “get” or “love” – using these verbs requires an object or the statement will not “sound” right
    • Examples are given:
      • English: She gets. I write.
  • Intransitive Verbs
    • verbs that do not require an object to express the meaning
    • the action is complete by itself
    • Examples are given:
      • English: He jumps
      • ASL: SISTER EAT.
  • Syntax of American Sign Language
    • syntax – sentence structures
    1. topicalization, topic-comment or time-topic-comment
    2. WH-Q
    3. Y/N-Q
    4. Negation
    5. Command
    6. Conditional
    7. Rhetorical Question (RH-Q)
  • Major Lexical Categories
    • Nouns – person, place, thing, idea (usually the “subject” of the sentence)
    • Predicates – the action and its objects of the sentence
    • Adjectives – words that describe nouns
    • Adverbs – words that describe verbs or objects
  • Minor Lexical Categories
    • Determiners – “a” or “the”
    • Auxiliary verbs
      • English: “to be” verbs: is, are, was, were
      • ASL: modals: CAN, MUST, SHOULD
    • Prepositions – show the position of the subject and/or object
      • ASL: FROM, WITH and usage of classifiers instead of prepositional words
    • Conjunctions – words used to join two parts of a sentence
      • English: and, but, however, etc
      • ASL: HIT, FOR-FOR, WHY, WRONG, etc
    • Pronouns – words used in place of nouns
  • Semantics – the branch of linguistics that studies the meaning of words, their historical and psychological development, their connotations, and their relation to one another.
  • Referential Meaning
    • an aspect of semantics
    • the word refers to something
  • Social Meaning
    • an aspect of semantics
    • words/signs are used that have meaning to the social group
  • Affective Meaning
    • an aspect of semantics
    • words/signs can be used to add or change the meaning
    • register levels
      • see register
    • using “explained” versus “boasted” have different affective meaning
  • Denotation
    • an aspect of semantics
    • the referential meaning of the sign/word – CAT/”cat” means the cat
    • the obvious meaning of the word
  • Connotation
    • an aspect of semantics
    • words can have “social” or “affective” meaning
  • Six Types of Relationships Between Lexical Items
    • an aspect of semantics – think “relationship”
    1. Hyponymy – words are related because they are all types of something
      • red, blue, green = they are all colors
    2. Part/Whole – words are related because they are all part of a whole thing
      • hand, arm, leg = they are parts of a body
    3. Synonymy – words are related because they are different ways to say the same thing
      • soda, pop, coke = caffeinated carbonated beverages
    4. Converseness– words are conversely related
      • brother-sister, mother-father
    5. Antonymy – words have an opposite relationship
      • large-small, up-down, light-dark, black-white
    6. Metaphor – the relationship between words can have a different meaning
      • a sheet of paper, a sheet of rain, a sheet of ice, a sheet for the bed
      • a bed of flowers, a bed of rocks, a bed for sleeping
  • Pragmatics – a study of how language is USED in specific situations to accomplish goals
    • these rules are usually subtle and they are learned through incidental learning experiences
  • Adjective Placement
    • an aspect of pragmatics
    • these are rules as to how adjectives are placed that cannot be altered
    • King Burger versus Burger King
    • stop-and-go traffic versus go-and-stop traffic
    • part of incidental learning experiences
  • Turn-taking
    • an aspect of pragmatics
    • the subtle rules for social interaction
    • ASL has specific rules and they are subtle so those who are not native language users tend to misunderstand them and also break the rules
  • Variation in Language Use
    • an aspect of pragmatics
    • variations can be social, ethnic, gender, or age-related
    • words/signs are different based on location and historical variations as well
  • Register
    • an aspect of pragmatics
    • language is used differently in different situations
    • also, the type of language use will also accomplish different goals
    • Register Levels
      • frozen – language that never changes (wedding vows, Miranda warning)
      • formal – Standard English (speeches, school lessons)
      • consultative – less formal standard English (newscasting, employee to the employer)
      • casual – language between friends (loose sentence structure, vernacular speech)
      • intimate – language between lovers or other close family and friends (pet names, inside jokes)
  • Bilingualism/Language Contact
    • an aspect of pragmatics
    • Code-switching
    • Foreign talk – heavy accent and improper grammar
    • Interference
    • Pidgins, Creoles, Mixed Systems
    • All can be a result of two languages coming into contact with each other
  • Pragmatics – Art
    • The way in which we use language to express ourselves – artistically.
    • English: music, poetry, books, recited verse
    • ASL: storytelling, handshape stories (A-Z, numbers, classifiers), percussion signing, drama, Deaf humor, poetry

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