April 07, 2004

ASL vs. English

In a Language Log post yesterday Mark Liberman discussed Ted Chiang's linguistics, commenting that American Sign Language (ASL) can indeed be transcribed. Another thing Chiang said about ASL deserves comment:

"...written English has about as much to do with ASL as written Chinese does."

Chiang is right, but not because ASL is manual. The reason ASL and English (both written and spoken English) are so dissimilar is that ASL has no historical connection with English. It's true that ASL is the language of people who live in an English-speaking environment, and that most or all adult ASL speakers (or "speakers", if you want to emphasize the non-oral medium) are literate in English. But that's because they are bilingual, just as most Hispanics and other linguistic minorities who live in the U.S. are bilingual.

ASL developed (in part?) from French Sign Language, which was the sign language known to the people who founded the U.S. school for the Deaf where ASL arose. ASL is at least as different from English, and for that matter from British Sign Language, as French is. Signed languages like ASL are separate from and independent of the spoken languages in their environments; they are not dependent on spoken languages in any linguistic sense.

ASL structural and lexical properties differ strikingly from those of English in many ways. For instance, ASL verbs have inflectional affixes that agree with objects as well as subjects -- like Swahili and Montana Salish and many other languages, but unlike English and French and almost every other Indo-European language. (Most Indo-European languages have subject agreement but no object agreement; the last trace of subject agreement in English is the distinction between present-tense verbs with a third-person singular subject and all other present-tense verb forms, e.g. John sit-s vs. I/you/we/they/the boys sit.)

Posted by Sally Thomason at April 7, 2004 08:48 AM