Characteristics of American Sign Language and Other Natural Sign Languages

This entry focuses on American Sign Language (ASL) because it is the natural sign language used in the United States and it has been the most extensively studied. However, many of the issues raised here about the unique properties of natural sign languages and the normal pattern of acquisition of those languages by deaf children exposed to complete and early input apply to all natural sign languages.

ASL and other natural sign languages are formally structured at different levels and follow the same universal constraints and organizational principles of all natural languages. Like the distinctive features of spoken phonology, a limited set of handshapes, movements, and places of articulation on the face and body distinguish different lexical signs. For example, in ASL the signs for SUMMER, UGLY, and DRY are produced with the same handshape and movement, but in different locations on the face (Bellugi et al., 1993). Just as in spoken languages, the syntactic rules of ASL operate on underlying abstract categories defined by their linguistic function, such as subjects and objects, or noun phrases and verb phrases. Furthermore, grammatical processes are recursive, embedding one phrase or clause within another (Liddell, 1980).

On the other hand, the visual-spatial modality of natural sign languages leads to several distinctive properties. Spoken languages are mostly sequential, in that the order of speech elements determines meaning. For example, temporal or adverbial modulations in meaning are expressed in spoken English by inflectional suffixes and prefixes that are added to the verb root. In contrast, multiple features of meaning are communicated simultaneously in sign languages: the place, direction, and manner in which signs are produced frequently add to or modulate the meaning of a sign. For example, ASL has evolved a system of simultaneous inflectional morphology on the verb that indicates person, number, distributional aspect, and such temporal aspects as the repetition, habituality, and duration of the action. The single sign GIVE, for example, can be inflected to communicate the meanings "give to me,'' "give regularly,'' "give to them,'' "give to a number of people at different times,'' "give over time,'' "give to each,'' and "give to each over time'' (Bellugi et al., 1993).

Second, sign languages use space as a grammatical and semantic device. For example, in ASL the noun referring to a particular person or object can be assigned (or indexed) to a location in space, typically to one or other side of the signer. Referring back to that place

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in space by pointing to it then acts as an anaphoric pronoun. Similarly, for verbs such as GO, GIVE, INFORM, or TEACH that involve directionality or movement in their meaning, the starting and end points of the sign and its direction of movement between points in space are used as an agreement marker on the verb to indicate the subject and recipient of the action (Wilbur, 1987; Bellugi et al., 1993).

Third, ASL makes extensive use of simultaneous nonmanual facial expressions and body movements as adverbial, grammatical, and semantic devices. Some of the facial expressions accompanying signed sentences seem to be expressions of intensity or attitude, such as pursing the lips or puffing out the cheeks, but others have obligatory syntactic roles. Raising the eyebrows and tilting the head forward slightly changes a declarative sentence into a yes/no question. Topicalized clauses such as relative clauses specifying information about a referent are marked by raised eyebrows and the head tilted back (Liddell, 1980). Finally, ASL has several ways to negate an utterance, and a nonmanual marker— a headshake with the eyebrows squeezed together—is used with or without the negative signs for NO and NOT to negate a clause (Humphries, Padden, and O'Rourke, 1980; Wilbur, 1987).

In reporting speech or action, the person whose perspective is to be taken is assigned to a location in space (Emmory and Reilly, 1995). Then the signer turns his body as if signing from the perspective of that location and signs what the person did or said. This ''role shift'' is analogous to direct speech in spoken languages. It is accompanied by a break in eye gaze away from the conversational partner and the use of ''first-person'' pronouns in the role of the character involved. Reporting action also uses a role shift of the signer's body in space, but it employs different pronoun usage and facial markers to indicate that the actor's perspective is being taken (Emmory and Reilly, 1995).

Finally, like some spoken languages, ASL incorporates classifiers, linguistic markers that identify such features as the size, shape, animacy, and function of objects. In ASL different handshapes encode these properties of the objects and are incorporated into movement verbs (Wilbur, 1987; Schick, 1990). The most iconic of the classifier handshapes are those that reflect the size and shape of the object referred to. So, a single handshape depicts all medium-sized cylindrical objects, such as a cup, a small tube, and a vase. Other classifiers are more abstract, representing classes of objects that do not resemble each other (or the classifier sign) in size or shape. Thus, one classifier is used to represent all vehicles, including boats and bicycles. Some classifier signs can serve as pronouns in sentences (Humphries, Padden, and O'Rourke, 1980).

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