Level: Intermediate II and higher

HAPPEN conjunction in American Sign Language

Conjunction is a word used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause. Examples of common conjunctions are "but", "if", and "and".

ASL has some conjunctions that are not found in English in terms of a word-for-word translation. Among the conjunctions, one is what is glossed as conj-HAPPEN.

Meaning of "HAPPEN" conjunction

Keep in mind that it's a gloss as in transliteration, not a translation, which means it's not "happen" in English.

The translation in English is best described as "in a coincidence that" or "as it so happens". Its close cousin of conjunction is "conj-HIT" which is described as "coincidentally", "surprisingly". As for the "when clause", that will be explained shortly.

The transliteration symbol /\ is used here to represent the raised eyebrows. Raised eyebrows contain multiple functions for yes/no questions, conjunctions, topicalization, etc. On the other hand, the inverted symbol \/ depicts furrowed eyebrows used in WH-questions (not when signer is mad, ha).

Examples of usage

Here are some original ASL sentences in glosses or transliteration.

IN-PAST IX-me TRAVEL EUROPE, SAW GROUP GUYS IX1 GREECE TRAIN, FEW DAYS LATER IX2 FRANCE, /\conj-HAPPEN/\ AGAIN SEE GROUP, LATER /\conj-HAPPEN+HIT/\ AGAIN! SAW SAME GROUP, THIRD TIME!

Notice that there is a double conjunction "conj-HAPPEN" and "conj-HIT" in that ASL sentence. Sometimes, it can happen.

/\BUS RIDE/\ FRIEND WE-TWO CHAT, IX-me GET-OFF GO(var) HOME /\FIND/\ NONE KEY /\THINK/\ FORGET KEY LEFT IX-there BUS, #BACK THERE IX-me WAIT BUS COME-BACK, /\conj-HAPPEN+HIT/\ KEY THERE! LUCKY!

Notice another conjunction that is not discussed before? Conj-FIND and conj-THINK can be described as in "realized that".

/\DRIVE-TO CALGARY/\[topic], MY FATHER POSS CAR IX-me BORROW, DRIVE ONE HOUR /\HAPPEN/\ GAS CL:LOW /\NEXT GAS/\ IX-me PULL-UP /\WRONG+FIND/\ GAS KEY NONE, FATHER FORGOT GIVE-me.

MY FATHER | FOUR HEARING FRIENDS TWO-OF-THEM PLAY-inflected RAISE-UP /\ONE DAY/\ HE GO-AWAY DEAF SCHOOL STAY-there /\HAPPEN/\ FOUR FRIENDS DIED.

These sentences above are original in ASL without any prior English translations.

If translating the ASL sentences above, I see some possible conjunctions and adverbs in English translations such as "as", "while", "incredibly", "coincidentally", "when", and some simply a regular subject-verb phrase.

When clause

The "when" clause topic is taught in Signing Naturally Level 2 and it took time for the level 2 students to absorb this basic ASL structure (such as "When I was age 8, ..." and "In 1974, ...").

Can "conj-HAPPEN" be used for "when clause" in English? In short answer, no.

It's possible to translate from few of the ASL sentences above into a "when clause" in English. However, when translating from a "when" clause in an original English sentence into ASL, most of the times, the ASL conjunction "HAPPEN" would not be the case. Here is the metaphor I come up for an illustration.

translation fits/units metaphor
A metaphor by Jolanta Lapiak, 2022

When translating an ASL sentence into an English "when" clause, it's possible in some if not few cases, maybe because it's a broader "fit", like the ASL circle can fit through the English square in the image of metaphor above.

Conversely, when translating from a "when" clause in an original English sentence into an ASL sentence using "conj-HAPPEN", it may not likely fit the ASL meaning, just as the metaphor illustrates where the English square doesn't fit inside the ASL circle.

In other words, the "when clause" in English has broader meaning, while "HAPPEN" conjunction in ASL, has more specific meaning. If conj-HAPPEN is used by beginners, it can feel awkward, out of place, or weird.

"When" clause in English

When translating from English "when clause" into ASL, here is some explanation how to express in ASL.

English sentence: When I first saw my puppy, I fell in love with him." or "I fell in love with the puppy when I first saw him."

Here is what the ASL translation would look like:

ASL glosses (transliteration): /\FIRST TIME IX-me SAW IX1 PUPPY/\, IX-me FELL-IN-LOVE[IX1].

In ASL, the signer raised eyebrows (symbol /\) for the whole subordinate sentence and then return the eyebrows to its normal level for the main clause. This is the general grammar in ASL for a "when" clause.

Another example for the English sentence: When I go on a trip, I always take my dog.

ASL transliteration: /\IX-me TRAVEL/\, IX-me ALWAYS TAKE MY DOG. Other possible sentence variations: /\WHENEVER IX-me TRAVEL/\, IX-me ALWAYS TAKE MY DOG. or /\IF IX-me TRAVEL/\, IX-me ALWAYS TAKE MY DOG.

HAPPEN conjunction in ASL

Now, suppose signer utters the following ASL sentence:

/\conj-HAPPEN IX-me SAW IX1 PUPPY/\, IX-me FELL-in-LOVE[IX1].

This sentence has a different nuance of meaning from the earlier sentence: /\FIRST TIME IX-me SAW IX1 PUPPY/\, IX-me FELL-IN-LOVE[IX1].

At this level, beginners don't grasp its meaning until they absorb the essential of ASL thinking into level 200 or later. Some things in a culture can be explained; some things cannot be explained without experiencing them.

Now, what would this ASL sentence be translated into English?

For the part, /\conj-HAPPEN IX-me ..., it's basically best described as "in a coincidence that" or "as it so happens". In addition, the freedictionary.com describes "as it so happens" as "coincidentally; surprisingly; as a matter of fact. Often said of an unlikely or unusual fact, event, or circumstance."

In a nutshell

From English sentences with a "when clause" into ASL, raised eyebrows for the subordinate clause is a common grammatical introduction. No "HAPPEN" conjunction.

Used in fluent and native level, the conjunction HAPPEN stands on its own in ASL. For some ASL sentences with the HAPPEN conjunction, several possible translations in English are: "as it so happens", "as a matter of fact", "coincidentally" and several others.

One more thing...

The English phrasal verb come up is defined as by the Cambridge dictionary: "to happen, usually unexpectedly."

English sentence example: "I've got to go - something has just come up at home."

ASL transliteration: IX-me MUST go(var); SOMETHING HAPPEN POP-UP/TURN-UP/APPEAR IX-there HOME. This time, it's a verb phrase with a different sentence structure.

Each language has its own way and translation can be challenging.

Related posts

See the introduction on conjunctions in sign language.

Conjunctions for beginners: conj-FINISH, conj-FINISH.

For mid-intermediate and advanced levels, see conj-ONE, conj-UNDERSTAND.

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