Beginner I

"Be" Verbs and Zero Copula in Sign Language

The "be" verbs (e.g. "is", "are", etc) doesn't explicitly exist in American Sign Language (ASL). Every language has its own "to be" grammatical rules.

ASL is not alone; there are also several spoken languages that have what is called "zero copula", which refers to "the absence of an explicit auxiliary verb (usually a form of the verb be) in certain constructions where it is customarily found in standard English.". Ref

Zero coupla or null coupla to some degrees can be found in ASL like other spoken languages, such as Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Arabic and some African American Vernacular English (Ref), some African languages, and others).

Sometimes, English (like other copula-used languages) drops or omits the copula (likewise for the articles, such as "a", "the", etc.) in some circumstances such as newspaper headlines. Conversely, sometimes in ASL, it adds a copula in some circumstances for emphasis or transliteration.

Below are some examples of the ASL sentences that substitute the "be" and "to be" verbs. Please note that facial grammar and some grammatical nuances are not noted in glossing.

"To be" present verbs

Examples: "They are funny" is signed as IX-plural FUNNY. He is a big, tall man can be signed as IX MAN HUGE, TALL.

In English "She is a bookbinder (or any worker)." In ASL, one typically utters such as "IX WORKS..." Instead of "is", use an intransitive verb such as WORK.

Use some ASL words that tell the present time, such as now and today. Or, sometimes there are no mention of the present-related words which generally tells the present time.

E.g. IX-me FINE for I'm fine.
IX-me NAME fs-JANE for My name is Jane.
IX NOW HOME or IX HOME NOW for She/he is at home now or She/he is now at home.

The English sentence ASL isn't English is expressed in ASL as ASL itself not English.

"To be" past verbs

The English "to be" verbs such as was, were are the past tenses. Use the ASL words that tell the past time, such as before, finish, and many other time indicators.


"become" verb

When used appropriately, the ASL verb become is sometimes used.

E.g. ix-me not-want become father for I don't want to be a father.
ix-me not-want become crazy. No translation needed, you get it.

Every language has some words that cannot be translated word by word into another language. Translation is to interpret a concept or meaning in one language that is equivalent to the same concept in another language.

Related posts

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