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Lurking in . . .
"From the darkness, sleeping light." Formerly luminus dormiens. Lux pacis, light of peace.
Quote: "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." --Bill Watterson, cartoonist, Calvin and Hobbes
ASL, English, Spanish, and Chinese
I have to give several examples that interest me about ASL, which along with some elements of Chinese, Spanish, and English, will serve to illuminate sign language structure as a whole.
I am not a linguistic major, so I don't declare myself as qualified for analyzing any language. Also, linguist classes do not seem to be offered at my university. Actually, I can find some classes that teach phonetics, semantics, and other basic features of languages, but these classes are not part of a linguistics major, which is understandably not offered. Instead, these classes are subsumed under the major of either Anthropology, Speech Pathology and Audiology, and English.
I have to explain, to give a context, the basis of the extraordinary power of ASL for expression. Although, I consider myself just a student of ASL, who has not grown up in the language to be qualified to analyze it, I will present examples that I believe will support my cases. I will stand to be corrected if I am wrong.
This article was inspired by an LYD post. I will try to find a link to that post, but in summary, a girl had a tattoo on her back that said vegetable. It was supposed to mean "love," but it was not the character that Ernie was used to seeing. He suggested that the tattoo was in simplified Chinese, but a comment post from a sage explained the composite radicals of the Chinese character for love is different from the radicals for vegetable. (You may look for that comment by inputting "Sire" in your
The comment also explained that many Chinese words/characters have "weird" meanings when they are used by themselves. My mother has explained a lot about the two Chinese words that together means "crisis." I don't know how to put a Chinese character on the monitor (remind me to find out). Anyway, the Chinese words for "crisis" are two combining words that mean "danger" and "opportunity."
Danger opportunity. How fascinating that these words could combine to mean crisis. When I talked to my mom about it, she said that that was not the whole story. The word for danger does not really mean danger or dangerous as in English. It simply meant, if stood by itself, "to the point of danger." It is like a bookcase that is about to fall on you, but will not fall. The English idea of danger is that you will get hurt, but Chinese idea for that word is simply that it has the potential to be dangerous, but there is essentially no caution. You cannot, for example, use that one word to warn people of volatile chemical, of explosive mine, etc. To warn people, there must be another character that completes the meaning, clarify, crystallize it into "Caution! Falling Rocks"
The Chinese word for opportunity, just as well, does not quite mean opportunity because that word can be used, when part of a compound word, to mean fate, fortune, destiny, luck, potential, opportunity, etc. It is only when this character is placed next to the character for danger that the meaning is crystallized into crisis, which in turn, influences the meaning of the characters that are part of it.
Now, back to ASL. Although, ASL does not have such similar interlay of signs that together form different meanings, it does have a special syntax that changes meaning. The first example is the sign for miss/disappointed. This sign is made by pointing the index finger of the dominant hand at the center of the chin and pressing on the chin once.
If you choose to sign "I miss/disappointed," then it means "I am disappointed." Remember that ASL does not employ the usage of verbs for state of being, "to be." Although the signs for to be exist, they are not used. They may, however, be fingerspelled when necessary.
If you, however, choose to add an object that is receiving that sign for miss/disappointed, then the meaning changes, "I miss you."
This underlies a problem. How do you say, "I am disappointed in you"?
You can try to use the sign for "in," made by putting flattened "O" into a flattened "C." This could be glossed as "I disappointed in you."
But that's not American Sign Language. Rather, that is Signed English.
So how would you say "I am disappointed in you"?
ASL structure forbids it.
It is as wrong as saying in Spanish, "Doy a Mario el coche." It is missing "Le." You cannot skip the usage of le in Spanish, even if it seems redudant because that's part of the language. "Le doy a Mario el coche."
That does not mean, however, that there is no way to say "I am disappointed in you." There is a way to convey that meaning, even if the structure is decidedly un-English.
The structure would be glossed as, "I disappointed, You fail test." "I'm disappointed in you for failing the test."
What does it mean, then, that ASL does not allow certain sentence structure to exist? Absolutely nothing, unfortunately. There are people who sign in manually-coded English. There are people who sign ASL.
It still means something though, because ASL has its own way of communicating that, viewed from an English-speaking perspective, seems creative, but is actually quite normal in obeying its rules.
When you observe Chinese, you recognize that similarly to ASL, it has no past or future tense (English does not have a future tense, it needs will, i.e. will do, will go, to substitute). How would you convey future tense? Exactly, you use "tomorrow" or "yesterday" for such functions. Is it a limitation that conjugations don't exist? Apparently not, because languages can thrive without them.
I was also inspired to write this post from the book that explained the coinage of new words in English. Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success. It explained how words like hot dog, moonlighting, scofflaw, couch potato, big bang, O.K., brunch make it into the English language, while linner (cross between lunch and dinner), millennium bug (so 2000), jabberwocky simply are forgotten and never used.
One myth that the book debunked was that new words are coined to fill in missing gaps in the language.
It took me back to looking at English itself and how no matter what people do to try to add new words to the language, it fails miserably. My usage of "'ey" for example to substitute for he and she will never see the light of day beyond the archives in which it is written. The usage of the word chad to describe paper ballot has already been dropped from the national memory. The German "wunderkind" (wonderchild, an exceptionally bright child) has not become any more common as a substitution for saying that a child is extremely intelligent. Nor is it likely that metrosexual (straight guys fashionably dressed), Iraqnophobia (utter pretrification of Iraq), or second-hand speech (overheard cellphone conversation) will succeed, despite "gaps" they could fulfill or how clever they sound.
So therefore, ASL should be regarded as a language despite the seemingly perceived "gaps" that people see, only because they didn't grow up using ASL.
The Sapir-Whorf Theory is very applicable to this phenomenon. Language dictates our thought process. Tools shape the process. "To a person with only a hammer, every problem is a nail." Without exposure to outside cultures, we cannot think outside the box. Google Search on Sapir Whorf
Rounding out my rants, it is essentially unfair that colleges and universities don't accept ASL as a fulfillment of the foreign language requirement. They are essentially trapped inside their box, unable to open up their minds to new things.
That's my two cents. What's yours?