ASL classes are filled to capacity at Purdue

Image courtesy David Umberger/Purdue News Service

Sign Language Words and Grammar

ASL sentences use a topic comment structure. The topic of an ASL sentence is like the subject of a sentence in English. Using the object of your sentence as the topic is called topicalization. Often the topic of an ASL sentence is a pronoun, such as I, you, he or she. An ASL speaker may sign a subject pronoun at the beginning of a sentence, the end of a sentence or both. For instance, if you were to say "I am an employee" in ASL, you could sign "I employee," "employee I," or "I employee I." All three are grammatically correct in ASL.

The comment section of an ASL sentence is similar to an English sentence's predicate - it says something about the topic. You might see a third element added to an ASL sentence structure to indicate the tense of the sentence. You would normally structure such a sentence as time topic comment. Depending on what you are trying to communicate and the style your receiver is used to seeing, you may alter the order of your signs for clarity. ASL grammar is not strict when it comes to sign order for time, topic and comment sections of a sentence, though many speakers feel that whatever order is least like English is the most appropriate. Expressing the time frame for the sentence at the end can be confusing -- most speakers avoid it.

You only need to establish the tense at the beginning of a conversation. If you wanted to tell a long story about what you did yesterday, you would sign "yesterday" at the beginning of your first sentence and go from there. Once you have designated the tense, your receivers will know that everything you sign belongs in that time until you indicate a new tense.

Tenses can vary depending on when a conversation takes place. In English you might say "I'm going to eat lunch at a restaurant this afternoon" or "Today I ate lunch at a restaurant." In ASL, you would sign "now afternoon I eat lunch" and your audience would understand the tense depending on the current time. If you were speaking with them in the morning, they would know you were talking about future plans. On the other hand, if you were talking at night, they would know you were speaking about what you did earlier that day.

To talk about a series of events, ASL speakers can use the space in front of and behind them to indicate a timeline. Signs close to the body indicate events that happened recently or will happen soon, while signs further out indicate events that either happened long ago in the past or will happen further in the future.

ASL does not use any variation of the verb "to be." Someone speaking ASL would not say, "I am hungry," for example -- they would sign "I hungry" while nodding. To say "I am not hungry," you would sign "I hungry" while shaking your head. In general, while signing a sentence you nod your head to affirm a condition and shake your head to negate it. The only time ASL speakers use "to be" verbs is when they are speaking about English (or any other comparable language).

If you are speaking ASL and wish to indicate a particular person as the subject of your sentence, you can use indexing. To index, you point your index finger at a person who is present (the present referent) or you can indicate someone who is not there (an absent referent). To talk about someone not in the room, you would first sign that person's name, and then indicate a space in the area you are in to represent that person. From that moment on, when you point to that space, the person you are speaking to knows that you are talking about the person whose identity you've established earlier.

You punctuate sentences in ASL through pauses and facial expressions. You can punctuate questions by signing a question mark, though most speakers rely on facial expressions to indicate they've asked a question. For example, to ask a receiver "do you like movies," a speaker would sign "you like movies" and raise his eyebrows.

In the next section, we'll talk about some basic rules of etiquette when conversing in ASL.