Explaining Sign Language - Directionality

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Most countries and regions have their own sign languages as well as spoken languages. America is a country made up of immigrants and the children of immigrants, and American Sign Language follows that same pattern. We don't have our own, indigenous sign language; the one we use is based on French sign language.

Sign languages are the only three-dimensional languages in the world. They are not just spoken languages that you can see on the hands; they are full languages in their own right. They're rich and dramatic, efficient and compact, yet elaborate. They use components that spoken languages simply can't use.

One of the necessary components of sign language is directionality. To illustrate how directionality works, I'll use the sign for the word "give." In American Sign Language, or ASL, the sign for "give" begins with hands upturned at mid-body level, fingertips closed as if holding a piece of paper. To make the sign, simply move the hands forward as if giving the piece of paper. You can "give" more than a piece of paper this way; you can "give" a house, a germ, or an elephant with this same sign.

We'll imagine you're having a signed conversation with someone named George, who stands in front of you. To say "I give you," make this sign beginning in front of your body, and extend the hands toward your friend George. This would tell George that you are giving something directly to him.

To ask George to give something to you, you would start the sign in front of him, and move the sign in toward your own body. See the difference between the two signs? "I give you" starts close to you and moves away. "You give me" starts away from you and moves inward. This is directionality: the direction that the movement of the sign takes, influences or changes the meaning of the sign.

Now, let's make it interesting. Imagine two more friends have joined the conversation. We'll call them Ginny and Pete. For this illustration we'll add the component of location, which we will explore in other articles.

We'll assume you are familiar with fingerspelling - but don't worry if you're not, this is just an illustration. First, you spell "Ginny" and point down and slightly to your left, between yourself and George. Now spell "Pete" and point down and slightly to your right. You have now established the spots where Ginny and Pete would be standing if they were actually with you.

While looking at George, make the "give" sign starting in front of you and moving to the left, to the spot where you placed Ginny. You have now told George that you gave Ginny something. To tell George that you gave Pete something, look at George and make the same sign, except move it toward your right side.

Now let's tell George that you will give something to Ginny, and she will then give it to George. Do what you did before, but add a bit to it. While looking at George, "give" the item to Ginny. Pause, still keeping eye contact with George. Then continue the movement of your hands from Ginny's spot, over to George.

What if Pete must get the item after George is done with it? Just add on again. Once you have had Ginny give the item to George, pause, then continue the movement over to Pete's spot.

To put an even finer point on this, you can add one more sign. This sign is "finish." It can be made with one hand or two. Start with the hands open, fingers separated, palms up, in front of you. Flick the hands downward once as if shaking off water. For this scenario, keep the "finish" sign near you while the "give" sign moves around the circle.

Now: "Give" your item to Ginny with one hand. Maintain eye contact with George. While holding the item in Ginny's area, make the "finish" sign with the other hand. Now "give" the item to George, then sign "finish." Move the item to Pete's area. You have told George the sign equivalent of "I give the item to Ginny. When she's done with it, she gives it to you. When you're done with it, you give it to Pete."

You could even add on another set of "finish, give" if Pete has to give the item back to you when he's done with it. Just sign "finish" and move the "give" sign from Pete's area back to yourself. The item has come full circle.

There are two ways to show that you will give the same type of item to everyone at once. For the first kind, it is easier to use only one hand. Start with the signing hand in front of yourself. In one smooth, sweeping arc, "give" the item to Ginny, then George and then Pete.

A second way to show this idea uses both hands at the same time. With one hand, in a smooth arc "give" the item to George and then Pete. With the other hand, "give" the item slightly forward and then sweep it over to Ginny.

In ASL and in other sign languages, directionality quickly becomes intuitive. Once you understand the basics of this component, it's easy to understand, imagine and create complex meanings.

Another integral part of sign language is facial expression, which we will explore in another article. By adding the appropriate facial expression, plus the sign for " a cold" (which is pinching the nose twice while pulling the hand downwards), you can tell Ginny or George that you accuse Pete of giving his cold to the entire group - or just to George - or to yourself and Ginny. The possibilities are, literally, endless!

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Rosemary Kurtz has 1 articles online

Rosemary Kurtz, M.A. has worked in the field of deafness for decades. She now works at Maxi-Aids, a company that distributes affordable assistive devices worldwide. If you or someone you know uses sign language, products for the hearing impaired or assistive devices for visual impairments or mobility issues, please visit http://www.maxiaids.com and see all our products geared toward your independent living.

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Explaining Sign Language - Directionality

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This article was published on 2010/03/30