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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Form, Meaning, and Focus in American Sign Language

Miako N. P. Rankin

Chapter 1

Teeming with thoughts, the human mind by nature desires to connect with other human beings. Our thoughts are dynamic and multifaceted. They range from the mundane to the extraordinary, and from moment to moment we seek to communicate statements of the directly and presently tangible as well as flights of fancy and intricate abstractions. We recognize that other humans are experiencing such complexity of thought as well, and to live in community we need and want to share our thoughts with them and be privy to some of their thoughts as well. For everything from planning to politics to poetry, the primary means by which we attempt this feat is language.

Language use is not direct access to thought, however. In communicating even what seem to be simple concepts, we make choices about how much detail to express, which perspective to convey, what aspects to emphasize. On all of these scales, languages allow for various choices while limiting others. At the lexical level, we may choose to describe the same person using the words that boy or the young man in the yellow T-shirt or David or your annoying brother. This multiplicity of options applies not only at the lexical level; it is also available to us as we combine words into utterances, and we can describe a single event in various ways.

The English sentences in examples 1 through 3, for instance, could be uttered as descriptions of the same event, yet each one expresses a different portrayal of that singular event:

1. Scott bought the painting from my sister.

2. My sister sold the painting to Scott.

3. The painting was sold to Scott (by my sister).

The primary distinction conveyed here is what cognitive linguists refer to as construal, which is defined as the specific portrayal of a given situation (Van Hoek 1997; Langacker 2001; Taylor 2002). Although all three sentences describe the same event and they can all be simultaneously accurate representations of what occurred, they do not all convey the same meaning. Each sentence asks the reader to conceptualize the situation differently. In sentence 1 the focus is on Scott and his action; in sentence 2 the sister is the most active participant; and in sentence 3 the painting itself is the primary focus. Though all three express descriptions of the same event and resultant state, different circumstances would call for each one, depending on which aspect of the scene the speaker chooses to emphasize. A native English user would not use them interchangeably. Construal is therefore a critical component of meaning.

the meaning of grammar

The sentences in examples 1 through 3 express different construals through both word choice and grammatical structure. Sentences 1 and 2 both have the same grammatical structure. The difference between them is the choice of the verb, namely, bought in sentence 1 and sold in sentence 2. Sentence 3, however, uses the same verb as sentence 2 (i.e., sold), but its grammatical structure is different from that of sentences 1 and 2. This difference allows the same situation to be expressed by yet another construal.

Sentence 3 is in passive voice, whereas sentences 1 and 2 are in active voice. In active-voice utterances, the participant initiating the action, called the agent, is expressed in subject position and is understood to be the focus of the utterance. In a passive-voice utterance, the agent is not the focus of the sentence; the agent either is not expressed at all or is expressed in a by-phrase that occurs after the verb. This structure evokes a meaning in which the agent is not in focus.

Since various construals can be expressed by choosing different lexical items, such as the verbs in 1 and 2, or by choosing particular grammatical structures, as in 2 and 3, grammatical structures themselves convey part of the meaning of expressions. In fact, as Langacker (2006) states, “The semantic import of grammar resides in particular ways of construing the conceptual content evoked by other elements” (115). The meaning of each sentence depends not only on the meaning of the individual words but also on the meaning provided by the construal, which is based on the grammatical arrangement of those words.

implications for language learning

For language learners, the fact that particular forms evoke particular meanings at all levels — morphemes, lexical items, grammatical constructions, discourse structures — has striking implications. In addition to understanding the vocabulary of a new language, an effective language user must also be able to recognize patterns in the use of particular grammatical constructions in order to be able to generalize over a variety of situations and determine the meaning encoded in the various forms of the sentences. This understanding of structural meaning is the foundation of one’s expressive ability and allows one to form novel sentences and converse comfortably in a range of discourse settings.

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