Personal pronouns and spatial referencing in sign language

Pronouns are a class of referents that may substitue for nouns in a sentence. They have the same reference as the nouns which they replace.

Personal pronouns in English include "he," "she," "it," and "you". They are used to make nouns in sentences less repetitive. In ASL, indexing (spatial referencing) is used for pronouns. Unlike English (e.g. "he" and "him") but like Chinese, the forms of the ASL pronouns are the same for both subject and object in a sentence.

An ASL student may sometimes be seen signing the same nouns repeatedly without using pronouns. In this case, imagine what it would be like to translate ASL into English below. It's repetitive and somehow distracting.

Jane asked John for a penny that Jane could use the penny in Jane's wallet for good luck. John couldn't find John's wallet and realized John had lost John's wallet.

A speaker does not need to repeat the same noun every time. Instead, the she/he uses pronouns to refer to these nouns in the following sentence.

Jane asked John for a penny that she could use it in her wallet for good luck. John couldn't find his wallet and realized he had lost it.

ASL, like other sign languages, has a complex set of pronouns, pronominal classifiers, and indexing. It uses the pronominal references in space.

There are a few different ways of indexing. Manual indexing is a common promominal indexing. Eye-gazing is also a significant promoninal indexing. In the illustration, a black line and a gray dotted line represent manual-indexing and eye-gazing, respectively.

In manual indexing, a finger pointing is associated with personal pronouns. Eye-gazing communicates with whom the signer is talking to or it can indicate a referent.

Here are some basic examples of using personal pronouns in sign language.

ix my husband
He is my husband or This is my husband.

Indexing to the right space for right-handed dominance is common when talking about a person, a main subject.

ix my uncle
He is my uncle or This is my uncle.

Same, another example.

ix age 38
He is 38 years old.

Once you establish a subject in a specific space, you consistently use the same space to refer to the same subject. E.g. This is my uncle. He's 38.

A noun in sentences has its spatial reference that you can use it to refer to the noun or subject until you change the subject. When you no longer talk about one of the subjects and talk about a new subject, you can recycle the space.

That is, when you talk about a new subject and no longer use the previous noun, you re-establish (e.g. recycle) the space by first signing the noun and then assign it a spatial point. Just like you use 'he' repeatedly for the subject "John" until you talk about a different subject. You introduce the noun "Sam" and use 'he' which is not referred to John.

Related Posts

Also see possessive pronouns (possessive adjectives); determiners (THAT, THESE, etc).

Also see listing and ranking: referencing grammar.

Practice signing pronouns and possessives in sentences.

These are some ASL lessons, tutorials, and tips that ASL students and language enthusiasts can explore and learn some ASL on their own relaxing pace.

Seeking some challenges? Try some stories, fables, and others in ASL storytelling and poetry. Study a complex system of subtle eye gazes, role-shifting, classifiers, sentence structures, and other linguistic features as well as poetics.