Verb inflection: HELP in American Sign Language

Many ASL verbs, not all of them, can be modulated to a different meaning by using one of these temporal aspect, distributional aspect, and spatial agreement. Some ASL verbs can be modulated into indicating verbs by modifying the direction or movement of the verb.

Inflecting a verb can change the subject-object structure as well as it can incorporate pronouns. The indicating verb HELP is chosen here to give you an illustration.

This base verb help is a regular, non-inflected verb. It can be grammatically modulated within the SVO (subject-verb-object) sentence structure.

The signer inflects this verb help to help-you, in which the signer moves from herself (the subject/pronoun "I") toward you (the object/pronoun "you"), that is "I help you."

Many ASL verbs can be inflected to indicate the subject and the object in a sentence. These inflected verbs are called indicating verbs.

It's the opposite from the above. Changing the direction of the verb results in a different subject-object structure, that is you-help-me.

The direction of this movement indicates help him/her. The locative in the right space refers to "her/him/it". The pronoun in ASL has no gender identity; it is neutral.

This repetitive movement refers to two persons who help each other. Using this same sign but changing the direction will result in a different meaning. E.g. You and I help each other.

The movement of this sign is modified to a smooth arc, which indicate to "help all of you" or "help everyone".

The repetitive movement of this plural verb refers to "helping each of you", usually in this case, to two people. There is more than one spatial reference point.

This repetitive movement refers to "helping each of you", usually more than two people. E.g. "I've been helping several people." There are more than two spatial reference points.

Notice how a different space is used between "help each of you" to "help you over and over again"? In this video, the signer uses the same space of the verb help-you+++ (temporal aspect) which refers to one person (e.g you) that the signer has/had been helping you over and over again.

With the same tone and movement, you can change the direction for different pronouns. E.g. ASL: IX1 HELP-IX2+++. English equivalent: "She has been helping him over and over again."

I can show some more HELP inflections with different tones, movements, repetitions, and durations, even nuances of them, for different meanings. But, it's where advanced signers can discover along the way with Deaf signers (and will still overlook without them realizing it!).

These examples above is an introduction. Below is a list of some ASL verbs that can be modulated into directional verbs. Not all verbs can work.


Not all ASL verbs can be inflected. Below is a list of some ASL verbs (often body-anchored)that cannot be inflected. They are called plain verbs. E.g. DOUBT, UNDERSTAND, KNOW, etc.

Related posts

Related posts: about verb inflection in general.