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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Form, Meaning, and Focus in American Sign Language
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the research project

The motivation for undertaking research on passive voice specifically began with my experience teaching English reading and writing to deaf students. Although the students were working hard to understand the material, I found myself struggling to explain the meaning expressed through particular English grammatical structures. In our classroom, ASL was the language of instruction, so part of my role in explaining the structures included providing ASL translations of the English example sentences. For passive voice in particular, I found myself unable to come up with ASL expressions that were semantically equivalent without resorting to long, drawn-out explanations and roundabout explanations of meaning. I wondered how native ASL users express the meaning encoded in passive utterances, specifically the reduction in focus on the agent in a transitive event. What started as a query related to improving my effectiveness in the classroom naturally evolved into my research question and the design, elicitation, analysis, and results described in this dissertation.

Using my classroom experience and understanding of the meaning of the English passive as a foundation, the research question I formulated was therefore as follows: does ASL have structures that evoke a defocused agent construal? The requisite follow-up question was of course this: if so, what are the forms of these ASL agent-defocusing utterances? Once utterance types that defocus the agent had been identified, further analysis was conducted with the goal of describing how the utterances shift focus away from the agent and what level of agent focus each utterance type evokes.

Because the motivation for the research emerged from my personal teaching experience, in which I had struggled to find equivalent translations for passive sentences, similar translation tasks were used to elicit the data. Four participants, all native ASL users with advanced proficiency in written English, were asked to translate individual English passive sentences and short written English texts containing passive constructions into ASL. They were also asked to do a short ASL-to-English translation task for comparison.

Though using translation for elicitation purposes has potential drawbacks, I chose it as the starting point for this initial foray into the question of how ASL expresses defocused agent construals. The use of passive prompts in English controlled for the target defocused agent construal, so the task required the participants to either produce ASL utterances that evoked the same construal or restructure their utterances in a way that would express analogous meaning. Because the tasks involved translation, specific participants who are skilled bilinguals with advanced metalinguistic awareness were chosen, thereby reducing the potential negative impact of working with both languages during the elicitation tasks.

The elicitation tasks were designed to investigate several different aspects of ASL expressions evoking defocused agent construals. Isolated passive sentences in English were used as prompts for one task in order to determine how ASL users express events when the agent is entirely unknown. I was curious to see what structure(s) would be employed and whether patterns would emerge. In the other task, the short texts containing English passives were each representative of a different discourse genre and were included to determine whether pragmatic similarities exist between ASL and English (i.e., whether similar construals would be evoked in the ASL texts or whether the signers would simply restructure the content as a whole and produce agent-focused utterances).

In fact, in the collected data, the most common strategy that native signers used to produce translations of English passive sentences was to simply leave the agent unexpressed. Though claims have been made that ASL is more direct than English (see discussion in Hoza 2007) and that ASL uses active voice where English uses passive voice (e.g., Kelly 2001), native ASL signers who were asked to translate English passive sentences into ASL simply added overt subjects and changed them into “active” sentences in very few cases. Participants did not struggle with the translation tasks they were given, and they expressed very little discomfort at being asked to produce agent-defocused construals. All four signers in all of the translation tasks readily produced utterances that simply did not overtly mention the agent, evoking the defocused agent construal.

In addition to the fact that agents were not always overtly specified, various levels of agent focus were also found to be expressed in ASL, just as in English and other spoken languages. These ASL utterances encode construals that parallel those encoded in the range of impersonal forms in English, in which prominence and specificity interact to produce various degrees of agent focus. Just as English uses not just the passive voice but a variety of other impersonal forms as well, each of which defocuses the agent to a different extent (Shibatani 1985; Marín-Arrese 2008), ASL also has a variety of impersonalization strategies that reflect different ways agents can be expressed and also affect the degree of focus on the agent.

Based primarily on my dissertation research, this book explores the options for expressing agents in ASL. Such information on where and how agentive entities are expressed, as well as the varying levels of focus evoked by each form, expands our knowledge of the intricacies of meaning inherent in particular ASL constructions. Perhaps more important, though, this book also demonstrates that form can never be divorced from meaning at any level, reminding us that for true understanding we must look beyond vocabulary.


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