American Sign Language grammar

There are other ways of modifying a verb or adjective to make it more intense. These are all more or less equivalent to adding the word "very" in English; which morphology is used depends on the word being modified. Certain words which are short in English, such as 'sad' and 'mad', are sometimes fingerspelled rather than signed to mean 'very sad' and 'very mad'. However, the concept of 'very sad' or 'very mad' can be portrayed with the use of exaggerated body movements and facial expressions. Reduplication of the signs may also occur to emphasize the degree of the statement. Some signs are produced with an exaggeratedly large motion, so that they take up more sign space than normal. This may involve a back-and-forth scissoring motion of the arms to indicate that the sign ought to be yet larger, but that one is physically incapable of making it big enough. Many other signs are given a slow, tense production. The fact that this modulation is morphological rather than merely mimetic can be seen in the sign for 'fast': both 'very slow' and 'very fast' are signed by making the motion either unusually slowly or unusually quickly than it is in the citation forms of 'slow' and 'fast'—not exclusively by making it slower for 'very slow' and faster for 'very fast'.

Many ASL words are historically compounds. However, the two elements of these signs have fused, with features being lost from one or both, to create what might be better called a blend than a compound. Typically only the final hold (see above) remains from the first element, and any reduplication is lost from the second.

ASL does have a limited number of concatenative affixes. For example, the agentive suffix (similar to the English '-er') is made by placing two B or 5 hands in front of the torso, palms facing each other, and lowering them. On its own this sign means 'person'; in a compound sign following a verb, it is a suffix for the performer of the action, as in 'drive-er' and 'teach-er'. However, it cannot generally be used to translate English '-er', as it is used with a much more limited set of verbs. It is very similar to the '-ulo' suffix in Esperanto, meaning 'person' by itself and '-related person' when combined with other words.

An ASL prefix, (touching the chin), is used with number signs to indicate 'years old'. The prefix completely assimilates with the initial handshape of the number. For instance, 'fourteen' is signed with a B hand that bends several times at the knuckles. The chin-touch prefix in 'fourteen years old' is thus also made with a B hand. For 'three years old', however, the prefix is made with a 3 hand.

Frames are a morphological device that may be unique to sign languages (Liddell 2004). They are incomplete sets of the features which make up signs, and they combine with existing signs, absorbing features from them to form a derived sign. It is the frame which specifies the number and nature of segments in the resulting sign, while the basic signs it combines with lose all but one or two of their original features.

An example of an aspectual frame is the unrealized inceptive aspect ('just about to X'), illustrated here with the verb 'to tell'. 'To tell' is an indexical (directional) verb, where the index finger (a G hand) begins with a touch to the chin and then moves outward to point out the recipient of the telling. 'To be just about to tell' retains just the locus and the initial chin touch, which now becomes the final hold of the sign; all other features from the basic verb (in this case, the outward motion and pointing) are dropped and replaced by features from the frame (which are shared with the unrealized inceptive aspects of other verbs such as 'look at', 'wash the dishes', 'yell', 'flirt', etc.). These frame features are: Eye gaze toward the locus (which is no longer pointed at with the hand), an open jaw, and a hand (or hands, in the case of two-hand verbs) in front of the trunk which moves in an arc to the onset location of the basic verb (in this case, touching the chin), while the trunk rotates and the signer inhales, catching her breath during the final hold. The hand shape throughout the sign is whichever is required by the final hold, in this case a G hand.

The variety of aspects in ASL can be illustrated by the verb 'to be sick', which involves the middle finger of the Y/8 hand touching the forehead, and which can be modified by a large number of frames. Several of these involve reduplication, which may but need not be analyzed as part of the frame. (The appropriate non-manual features are not described here.)

These modulations readily combine with each other to create yet finer distinctions. Not all verbs take all aspects, and the forms they do take will not necessarily be completely analogous to the verb illustrated here. Conversely, not all aspects are possible with this one verb.

The two systems, arbitrary and descriptive, are sometimes combined, usually for humorous purposes. Hearing people learning ASL are also often assigned combined name signs. This is not traditional for Deaf people. Sometimes people with very short English names, such as "Ann" or "Lee", or ones that flow easily, such as "Larry", may never acquire a name sign, but may instead be referred to with finger-spelling.

In addition to its basic topic–comment structure, ASL typically places an adjective after a noun, though it may occur before the noun for stylistic purposes. Numerals also occur after the noun, a very rare pattern among oral languages.

Adverbs, however, occur before the verbs. Most of the time adverbs are simply the same sign as an adjective, distinguished by the context of the sentence.

When the scope of the adverb is the entire clause, as in the case of time, it comes before the topic. This is the only thing which can appear before the topic in ASL: time–topic–comment.

ASL makes heavy use of time-sequenced ordering, meaning that events are signed in the order in which they occur. For example, for one would sign 'YESTERDAY LUNCH FINISH, BOSS GIVE-me WORK BIG-STACK, NIGHT CLASS LATE-me'. In stories, however, ordering is malleable, since one can choose to sequence the events either in the order in which they occurred or in the order in which one found out about them.

I was late to class last night because my boss handed me a huge stack of work after lunch yesterday,

As noted above, in ASL aspectually marked verbs cannot take objects. To deal with this, the object must be known from context so that it does not need to be further specified. This is accomplished in two ways:

Of these two strategies, the first is the more common. For my friend was typing her term paper all night to be used with a durative aspect, this would result in

A topic sets off background information that will be discussed in the following main clause. Topic constructions are not often used in standard English, but they are common in some dialects, as in,

ASL utterances do not require topics, but their use is extremely common. They are used for purposes of information flow, to set up referent loci (see above), and to supply objects for verbs which are grammatically prevented from taking objects themselves (see below).

If the word order of the main clause is changed, the meaning of the utterance also changes:

An example of a tm2 marking used with a topic related to the object of the main clause is:

Relative clauses are signaled by tilting back the head and raising the eyebrows and upper lip. This is done during the performance of the entire clause. There is no change in word order. For example:

where the brackets here indicate the duration of the non-manual features. If the sign 'recently' were made without these features, it would lie outside the relative clause, and the meaning would change to "the dog which chased the cat recently came home".

Negated clauses may be signaled by shaking the head during the entire clause. A topic, however, cannot be so negated; the headshake can only be produced during the production of the main clause. (A second type of negation starts with the verb and continues to the end of the clause.)

In addition, in many communities, negation is put at the end of the clause, unless there is a wh- question word. For example, the sentence, "I thought the movie was not good," could be signed as, "BEFORE MOVIE ME SEE, THINK WHAT? IT GOOD NOT."

There are two manual signs that negate a sentence, NOT and NONE, which are accompanied by a shake of the head. NONE is typically used when talking about possession:

Summary of the leftward wh-movement analysis in American Sign Language:

Summary of the rightward wh-movement analysis in American Sign Language

In spoken language Yes/no questions will oftentimes differ in their word order from the statement form. For example, in English:

This strategy is commonly used instead of signing the word 'because' for clarity or emphasis. For instance:

Information may also be added after the main clause as a kind of 'afterthought'. In ASL this is commonly seen with subject pronouns. These are accompanied by a nod of the head, and make a statement more emphatic:

In ASL signers set up regions of space (loci) for specific referents (see above); these can then be referred to indexically by pointing at those locations with pronouns and indexical verbs.

If the referent is not physically present, the speaker identifies the referent and then points to a location (the locus) in the sign space near their body. This locus can then be pointed at to refer to the referent. Theoretically, any number of loci may be set up, as long as the signer and recipient remember them all, but in practice, no more than eight loci are used.

Also among the personal pronouns are the 'self' forms ('by myself', 'by your/themselves', etc.). These only occur in the singular and plural (there is no numeral incorporation), and are only found as subjects. They have derived emphatic and 'characterizing' forms, with modifications used for derivation rather like those for verbal aspect. The 'characterizing' pronoun is used when describing someone who has just been mentioned. It only occurs as a non-first-person singular form.

Finally, there are formal pronouns used for honored guests. These occur as singular and plural in the non-first person, but only as singular in the first person.

ASL is a pro-drop language, which means that pronouns are not used when the referent is obvious from context and is not being emphasized.

There is no separate sign in ASL for the conjunction and. Instead, multiple sentences or phrases are combined with a short pause between. Often, lists are specified with a listing and ordering technique, a simple version of which is to show the length of the list first with the nondominant hand, then to describe each element after pointing to the nondominant finger that represents it.

ASL: CAT I HAVE THREE-LIST. NAME, FIRST-OF-THREE-LIST B-I-L-L-Y, SECOND-OF-THREE-LIST B-O-B, THIRD-OF-THREE-LIST B-U-D-D-Y.