Updated: Oct 12
It’s a common misconception among people who aren’t familiar with American Sign Language (ASL) that it is a direct, word-for-word representation of English. ASL is a unique language, completely distinct from English. In fact, unlike English speakers from Great Britain and the United States, a British Sign Language (BSL) user and an ASL user would find it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate. ASL is actually closer to French Sign Language!
ASL Has A Significantly Smaller Vocabulary
A typical English dictionary has about 180,000 words, and ASL has about 10,000 signs. That’s quite a difference! This simplicity has its advantages, but it also means that ASL students have some catching up to do when it comes to vocabulary.
Some Words Are Implied
One reason ASL has fewer words is that signs can be just slightly modified to convey different meanings. For example, many small words like articles and prepositions either don’t exist or aren’t widely used in ASL. For instance, to say “I like apples AND oranges,” one could pivot their body slightly to one side while signing apples and to the other while signing oranges.
Pronouns are also simplified. They are conveyed by “indexing” or pointing. The same sign is used for all pronouns, just slightly modified. For instance, for the word me, the signer would point to themselves. For her, they would point to whomever they were discussing, or if that person is not present, they would point off to the side. There is no distinction between subject and object pronouns, like I and me.
Signs for words like don’t and not exist, but aren’t always needed. Signers can negate a word by making an unpleasant expression, shaking their head from side to side, or flicking the sign away from the body as if to throw it away. Similarly, a signer can exaggerate or prolong a sign to convey very or so. In this way, one sign can have many meanings, based on the user’s expression.
ASL can also omit entire phrases by using stand-ins called classifiers. These signs are used to ‘show’ instead of ‘describe’ things like movement, location, or appearance.
The Sentence Structure Is Very Different
Because ASL doesn’t usually use prepositions like for, to, or from, the word order of a sentence becomes much more important to ensure understanding.
The order of words in an English sentence is usually subject-verb-object. Adjectives usually come before the noun they describe.
The brown [adjective] dog[subject] bit[verb] me. [object]
In English, words denoting time or location can be interjected in many different places.
Yesterday in the store the brown dog bit me.
The brown dog bit me yesterday in the store.
In the store yesterday the brown dog bit me.
ASL on the other hand uses a Time-Topic-Comment-Referent structure.
Yesterday dog brown bit me.
If a sentence has too many descriptors, rhetorical questions can be used to clarify.
Store dog brown bit me. When? Yesterday.
In ASL question words always come at the end.
Where do you live? (English)
You live where? (ASL)
There Is Elegance In Simplicity
Below is an excerpt from the poem Salt in the Basement: An American Sign Language Reverie in English by bilingual poet Willy Conley.
Written intentionally as a direct translation of ASL to English, this poem perfectly highlights the differences between the two languages. Although these differences present challenges to deaf and hard-of-hearing students as they learn to read and write in English, we can appreciate the beauty of this growing language.
Video: Intro to ASL Grammar Rules for Beginners
ASL Grammar Rules
A Description of ASL Features in Writing