The Triangle Structure in American Sign Language

The ASL instructor draws a simple couple of the mysterious triangles, one upward and one downward, on the whiteboard.

Then she asks the ASL beginners, (translated as) "Which triangle is hearing and which one is Deaf?"

triangle structure
Drawing on the whiteboard by the ASL instructor Jolanta

The students look blank. Some tilt their heads, puzzled. Baffled. "Is this some kind of a trick?"

Some students answer the former. Some others answer the latter.

The teacher asks them, "Why?" Secretly to her, it doesn't matter which triangle of the two extremes the students choose. The students (regardless of the right or the left) look stumped.

Yep, that's the point. It was only her way to get their attention. It's an important topic. Something to stamp a key grammar onto their forehead, not the around (e.g. slip into the back of their heads).

Now, the instructor wrote something on the triangles: forehead, err, foreground and background.

triangle structure
Drawing on the whiteboard by the ASL instructor Jolanta

Hint. It's a sentence or multi-sentence structure. The structure is from the foreground to the background and the other is from the background to the foreground. Which one of the two triangles English fits with? And, ASL?

The students look clueless. Yep, as expected. Now time for the lesson.

Here is the English sentence written on the whiteboard, The dog is sitting in the doghouse in the backyard.

Now, translate the English sentence into ASL. Students might variably translate roughly as DOG INSIDE DOGHOUSE IX-there BACKYARD.

Turn your mind 180 degrees around. "OSV, please." The student rephrased, BACKYARD/\ IX DOGHOUSE IX-INSIDE DOG (where /\ represents raised-eyebrows). That's better.

Which word is the foreground in this English sentence? The student hesitantly replied, "dog?" Yep.

And, word as the background in the English sentence? Another student replied, "backyard?" Yep.

So, the dog is on the tip of the triangle, and the backyard is on the wide part of the triangle. The word 'doghouse' is somewhere in the middle of the triangle.

triangle structure
Art by the literary media artist and ASL instructor Jolanta, 2020.

The teacher demonstrates for the students to copy.

Glossed as /\BACKYARD/\ IX1 DOG+HOUSE DOG/\ CL2-claw:DOG-SIT.

Keep this ASL tip in your front mind (not the back of your head) when it comes to practicing sentences or multi-sentences in general. Practice OSV (object-subject-verb) sentence structure where appropriately.

triangle structure
"Town Musicians of Bremen" sketch by the literary media artist and ASL instructor Jolanta, 2020.

English version: "The statue can be found outside the town hall in Bremen, Germany. The donkey stands on the bottom, with the dog on the donkey's back, then the cat and finally on the very top is the rooster."

A little secretive test for the ASL level 2 students. "I want you to describe this image or translate the English text into ASL."

Some students invarialy might sign the ASL words in the order: STATUE -> TOWN+HALL -> BREMEN -> GERMANY.

"Remember the triangle structure lesson last year?" The familiar faces gently nodded. "Ok, now redo it." The students likely do better with the reversed order: GERMANY -> BREMEN -> TOWN+HALL -> STATUE.


That's all for now. When speaking ASL, think in ASL space and structure. Don't think English and speak ASL. Break that habit. Yep, I know how you're thinking.

Posted by Jolanta Lapiak, 2020

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Related topics: Object-Subject-Verb sentence structure.