Level: Linguistics

Determiners in Sign Language

A determiner is a word that comes before a noun, and it tells you whether the noun is specific or general. A quantifier is a word that precedes and modifies nouns, and it tell us how many or how much.

The following examples of determiners in English include: articles (a, an, and the), numeral (one, three, first, next, last, etc.), possessive adjective (my, your, his, his friend's, etc), quantifier (few, a few, many, much, some, every, etc.), demonstrative adjective (this, that, these, those).

Every language has its own determiners. Some spoken languages don't have the articles or they have their own way. Below illustrates some examples of ASL determiners to help you understand its grammatical structure and rules.

Early determiners

ASL linguistics is a relatively new area of study since the 1960s, discovered by Dr. William Stokoe.

However, interestingly, it can go as far back as 1923 in A handbook of the sign language of the deaf... (1923) by Michaels, J. W. (Deaf, 1852-1942). On page 6, he described the parts of speech in sign language (old ASL back then) as follows:

"Article — Indefinite — A or An — Move the hand with the index finger only sticking up, in a round about way in front of you."

"Article — Definite — The — Shake the index finger toward the subject or object."

Indefinite and Definite Determiners

The assumption was that ASL didn't have articles directly equivalent to the English articles such as "a", "an", and "the". Linguistics studies show that ASL does have indefinite and definite determiners of its own way.

ASL gloss: german beer very-good
English equivalent: A German beer is very good.

ASL gloss: ix german beer very-good
English: The German beer is very good.

Both sentences with different usage of the determiners mean different things. In English, the determiner a means any unspecified German beer and the determiner the means "that specific German beer". The gloss ix in ASL represents "indexing" (finger-pointing). It is one of the determiners in ASL.

ix man ix seem lost around
The man there seems to be lost. or The man over-there seems to be lost.

The signer sometimes uses indexing before and after the noun. It does not necessarily mean a double determiner. This type of noun phrase is best explained as an equivalent found in other languages as follows:

den mannen der => "that man there" in Norwegian.
cet homme-là "that man there" in French.

Indefinite determiner in American Sign Language

ASL has a singular indefinite determiner, called something/oneone (gloss). If this is used without a noun phrase, then it is not a determiner. It means someone or something. When using it with a noun, usually it is an indefinite determiner.

Gloss: yesterday someone woman call-me

The phrase something/someone woman is indefinite which indicates "a woman".

my mother look-for book.

The noun book without its determiner indicates an indefinite. If one specifies a book, the signer would sign the following: my mother look-for one book. It does not indicate a number of book (e.g. one) but rather it indicates a specific book.

Definite determiner in American Sign Language

The noun book without its determiner indicates an indefinite. If one specifies a book, the signer would sign the following: my mother look-for one book. It does not indicate a number of book (e.g. one) but rather it indicates a specific book.

my mother look-for one book.

Numeral Determiners

There are two types of numeral determiners: cardinal numerals that express quantity and ordinal numerals that express sequence.

Cardinal numeral: one book, two cars, twenty books, etc.

Ordinal numeral: first impression, second chance, third prize, etc.

Subclass of ordinals: next week, last orders, previous engagement, subsequent developments

These examples are not much different between English and ASL. They are pretty straightforward.

Determiner: Quantifier

A quantifier expresses quantity. Quantifiers can be a single word or a phrase and are used with nouns.

some, many, few, several, little, a lot, seven, all, enough...

These are some examples of common ASL quantifiers.

Demonstrative adjectives

Demonstrative adjectives in English show whether the noun they refer to is located near to or far from the speaker, and they show whether it is singular or plural. E.g. "that", "this", "these", "those", etc.

As for the ASL demonstrative adjectives, the handshapes are mostly index finger and Y and they are spatially specific.

that-here paper, that-over man, ix-these cars, that-one.

These ASL determiners that-here and ix-here are used with nouns. If they are positioned in different parts of a sentence, they would be adverbials of place (here).

These ASL determiners that-there and ix-there are used with nouns. If they are positioned in different parts of a sentence, they would be adverbials (there, over there).

that car ix very-expensive.
that car over there is very expensive.

that-here ix book boring.
This book is boring.

These ASL determiners are some examples of demonstrative adjectives, using that/this.

References/Resources

[1] Benjamin Bahan (Boston University), Judy Kegl (Rutgers University), Dawn MacLaughlin (Boston University) and Carol Neidle (Boston University). "Convergent Evidence for the Structure of Determiner Phrases in American Sign Language". http://www.bu.edu/asllrp/flsm.pdf P 3.

Neidle, Carol Jan. The Syntax of American Sign Language. The MIT Press. Chapter 6, pp 86-91.

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