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A Case Study on Passive Voice Explores Options in American Sign Language

In her new book, Miako N. P. Rankin highlights the crucial interrelatedness of form and meaning at all levels in order to consider specific types of American Sign Language (ASL) expression. Take passive voice as just one example. Many materials designed for teaching ASL and/or for teaching ASL/English interpretation and transliteration maintain that ASL does not have passive voice and that agents must therefore be in focus. Thus, teaching beginning students of ASL, who are producing word-by-word literal translations of the English sentences in their heads, to recognize agents and express them actively in ASL makes sense. However, the underlying assumption that in ASL agents must always be in focus is untrue.

“The motivation for undertaking research on passive voice specifically began with my experience teaching English reading and writing to deaf students. 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 study.”

Form, Meaning, and Focus in American Sign Language, the 19th volume in the Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities series, explores the options for expressing agents in ASL. “Such information on where and how agentive entities are expressed,” observes Rankin, “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.”

Rankin shares more in her introduction; read it here. Order Form, Meaning, and Focus in American Sign Language online now.

Review: Tell Me How It Reads

In its winter 2014 issue, the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education succinctly summarized Rebecca Day Babcock’s Tell Me How It Reads: Tutoring Deaf and Hearing Students in the Writing Center, stating: “This book would be a meaningful supplement to the library of postsecondary education faculty, staff of writing centers and tutoring centers, and staff of disability resource centers at colleges and universities, as well as for sign language/educational interpreters.” Babcock’s study was also mentioned in Reference & Research Book News: “Culling 36 interviews and 19 tutoring sessions with 16 participants, [Babcock] describes the key differences between deaf-hearing and hearing-hearing tutorials and suggests ways to modify tutoring and tutor-training practices. She provides details on the tutees and tutors, the research context, the content of a tutoring session, interactions in sessions, interpreters and administrators, interpersonal factors, key tutoring factors, the efficacy of common tutoring techniques, contributing and complicating factors, and recommendations for practice.” Order Tell Me How It Reads.

Review: Prosodic Markers and Utterance Boundaries in American Sign Language Interpretation

In Prosodic Markers and Utterance Boundaries in American Sign Language Interpretation, volume five in the Studies in Interpretation series, Brenda Nicodemus discusses the prosodic features of both spoken and signed languages that indicate rhythm, stress, and phrase length as conveyors of emotion. The journal Sign Language & Linguistics gives high marks to this volume: “[Prosodic Markers] is a highly detailed and elaborate analysis of the poorly understood phenomenon of prosody in sign language interpreting. The study provides an extremely informative investigation of the clustering of prosodic features in interpreted discourse and is packed with very useful discussion and detailed references to relevant literature. [The book’s] emphasis on empirical data is particularly important to linguistic research aiming for descriptive adequacy. Learn more about Brenda Nicodemus’ groundbreaking research in chapter two, “What Is Prosody?” and order your copy here.