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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language and the Law in Deaf Communities

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l i s t i n g

To signal for the listener that a list of items, phrases, or sentences should be taken as a group of related items and to demarcate one item from another, a listing function is used. In English, this is accomplished by rising intonation at the end of each sentence, phrase, or item in the group with the exception of the final item, which is accompanied by falling intonation. In ASL, it is accomplished by leaning the upper body forward at the end of each sentence, phrase, or item. For example, the proposition Can you buy milk, bread, and twelve cookies? is signed as follows:

Upper Body:              lean lean             lean
Eyebrows:         raised                                              
Hands:              can buy milk egg twelve cookie

t o p i c a l i z a t i o n

Topic-comment structure is the notion of placing a topic first and then commenting on it. ASL uses this structure to place focus on something of heightened importance in an ongoing discourse. Consider the following stretch of English discourse:

I don’t really care for a lot of meat. Like, I don’t like steak or pork or even chicken. But I like liver. Really, I do! With onions and green peppers, it’s really tasty. I take it you don’t like liver?

In this stretch of discourse, a native English speaker would likely have placed emphatic stress on the word liver. In ASL, the same focus can be accomplished by a topic-comment structure. Diagrammed, the sentence would be as follows:

Eye Gaze:      to dom. hand----,neutral ------
Eyebrows:     raised -----------,neutral ------
Head:            back and tilt-----,nod_---------                              
Hands:           liver i like, i            pro. 1 (“i”) like, pro. 1 (“i”)

Topic-comment structure for this sentence requires a change in the word order. The basic word order of ASL is subject/verb/object (SVO), but to create the required focus, liver would be signed first, followed by the subject and verb. The nonmanual signals accompanying this topic portion of the sentence would be: head tilt back and slightly tilted away from the dominant hand, eyebrows raised, and eye gaze toward the dominant hand. There would then be a pause. For the remaining comment portion of the sentence, the head, eyebrows, and eye gaze return to a neutral position.

It should be noted that subjects and verb phrases might also be topicalized. If the subject is topicalized, no change in word order is necessary. To topicalize a verb phrase, the word order would be verb/object/subject; however, regardless of which syntactic category is topicalized, the nonmanual signals remain the same.

c o m p a r a t i v e  s t r u c t u r e

To compare and contrast in ASL, the signing space in front of the signer is visually divided into two segments—the right half of the signing space and the left half of the space. An item to be compared or contrasted is placed in its own space to the right or left. This is done by leaning the head, upper body, and hands toward one side as the item is introduced into the discourse. Any subsequent comparative or contrastive discourse relating to that item is signaled by leaning the upper body to the respective side and forming the signs in that area. Thus, as a signer moves through comparative or contrastive characteristics of two items, he or she moves the upper body and signs back and forth between the respective sides. The result is a visually iconic diagram of the comparison and contrast. In addition, the signer can efficiently relate discourse to either item without constantly restating the item as the subject of the relevant sentences.

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