Linguistics: An Introduction

By William B. McGregor

 

Search!

1.1 — American Sign Language

Below are some examples of simple sentences in American Sign Language (ASL), three versions of 'Who did John see yesterday?'

The first (i.e. (1)) is the normal form of the question; notice that 'who' remains in the position of an ordinary object, the position that would be occupied by Jane in John saw Jane yesterday. (Notice that word order is the same as in English.) The second and third versions (i.e. (2) and (3)), where the sign for 'who' occurs at the end of the sentence, have focus or emphasis on the 'who' — roughly like Who did John see yesterday?

The abbreviation whq stands for 'wh-question', that is, a question about 'who', 'what', 'where', 'when', and refers to a cluster of properties including furrowed brows, squinted eyes, and slight side-to-side shakes of the head.

Watch the videos carefully and try to identify these features, and thus the whq.

In the ordinary form of the question (as in (1)), the whq features extend over the entire sentence. In the emphatic question, they can either extend over the whole sentence (as in (2)), or they can apply just to the question word 'who', as shown in (3).

(1)
whq
JOHNSEEWHOYESTERDAY
‘Who did John see yesterday?’
To see this video, either get the free Flash Player and reload the page or download the video (8.mov, 1.1 MiB) and watch it in your favourite media player.
(1) Side view.
To see this video, either get the free Flash Player and reload the page or download the video (9.mov, 1.1 MiB) and watch it in your favourite media player.
(1) Front view.
(2)
whq
JOHNSEEtjYESTERDAYWHOj
Who did John see yesterday?’
To see this video, either get the free Flash Player and reload the page or download the video (14.mov, 961 KiB) and watch it in your favourite media player.
(2) Side view.
To see this video, either get the free Flash Player and reload the page or download the video (15.mov, 979 KiB) and watch it in your favourite media player.
(2) Front view.
(3)
  whq
JOHNSEEtjYESTERDAYWHOj
Who did John see yesterday?’
To see this video, either get the free Flash Player and reload the page or download the video (17.mov, 929 KiB) and watch it in your favourite media player.
(3) Side view.
To see this video, either get the free Flash Player and reload the page or download the video (18.mov, 963 KiB) and watch it in your favourite media player.
(3) Front view.

Videos courtesy of National Center for Sign Language and Gestures Resources, Boston University (directors Carol Neidle and Stan Sclaroff). Thanks also to Lana Cook for permission to use them.

Updated: Feb. 11, 2009