Linguistics in American Sign Language

William Woods ASL

ASL.Just as quickly as the rhythms and movement of American Sign Language captivate, it also confounds — a grammatically complex language with no structural relation to English.

Linguistics — the study of language and its structure — includes the study of American Sign Language. Linguists mine the complexity of the syntax of the language, its use of gestures, as well as facial features, body orientation and space.

William Woods University ASL interpretation studies students take courses like ITP 211 Comparative Translation, where they learn to compare the semantics (the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning) between American Sign Language and English. Understanding these structural differences at their core helps future American Sign Language Interpreters to quickly process meanings, as translation isn’t black and white. In this course, students are introduced to the linguistic principles of translation and interpretation.

Some of the basic studies in the linguistics of ASL include, morphemes, phonemes, semantics, pragmatics and the five registers. While morphology looks at the actual pieces of the word (morphemes) and whether or not these pieces have meaning together and apart from one another (like how “cat” and “s” form “cats”), phonology is comprised of the way the words are carried out, also known as the five parameters — movement, handshape, location, palm orientation and non-manual markers (like how the ASL words for apple and onion have the same handshape, but in a different location).

You might also study the five registers in ASL Linguistics, which describe the different ways in which you interact with other people depending on the situation — frozen, formal, consultative, informal-casual and intimate.

If you’re interested in an analytical approach to language like these above, consider ASL 425 Linguistics of American Sign Language at William Woods University. Students study and critique research pertaining to ASL and other signed languages, grammatical structures of the language, how it has evolved and the cultural implications of a changing language.