ASL is a true, living language with its own phonology, morphology and syntax. Phonology in spoken languages is concerned with speech sounds which then branches off into smaller, more specific realms. In ASL phonology consists of aspects of a sign; namely location, handshape, movement, orientation and nonmanual signals (facial expression). But phonology only looks at these contrastive parts of language devoid of meaning. Meaning is studied by linguists of all languages under morphology.
One of my favorite oft repeated phrases in linguistics is that languages have a finite set of rules that allows us to create an infinite number of sentences. We can mix up the words in our language any way we want, to say anything we want, but we gotta play by the rules. The rules are called syntax. We may not know the rules explicitly but they are implicit to us. How many times have you said "that doesn't sound right but I don't know why?"
When all of these elements are orchestrated to create language in use we do not necessarily separate out each of these essentials. One way these play out in ASL can be seen with the five basic sentence types; questions, negations, commands, topicalizations and conditionals. The focus of this post rests with questions.
The types of questions most asked are either Wh-questions or Yes-No questions. The former engages the use of words like who, what, when, why and where. In spoken English we indicate a question by using a falling inflection at the end of our sentences. Give it a try by saying out loud now "what time is it?". It would feel strange to us if our voice were to rise at the end of that question. So too in ASL when asking Wh-questions there is a correct grammar and 'feel'. The nonmanual features of phonology along with syntax and meaning necessitate the employment of the eyebrows. For Wh-questions the eyebrows lower much like the voice would. When I was first learning this it was like patting my head and rubbing my belly but it does become ingrained eventually, better to learn this early on in your studies.
Yes-No questions in American Sign Language also carry nonmanual features that are evident on the face of the signer. In spoken English when asking a yes-no question such as "Did you like that book?" our ending inflection goes up. In ASL this translates to raised eyebrows (and other nonmaual features like leaning forward and widening the eyes).
Lauren and I have put together another short video explaining all of this again but this time watch Lauren as she signs the 'wh' words. This is followed by a series of questions that are either wh-questions or yes-no questions. Can you notice the differences?After the video I wrote out the questions and answers so you can check out how you did.
If you had a keen eye you would have noticed that I asked all of the Yes-No questions and Lauren asked the Wh-questions.
Gary: Are we friends?
Lauren: Yes. What is your name?
Gary: Gary. Do you like that book?
Lauren: Yes. Where are you from?
Gary: Long Island. Do you like ice cream?
Lauren: No. When is your birthday.
Gary: It just passed, November 4th.
Lauren: Happy Birthday
So there you have a mix of vocabulary and structure. For more on the linguistics of American Sign Language check out Linguistics: A Resource Text for ASL Users of American Sign Language by Valli and Lucas now in its 4th Edition. It contains detailed information on basic ASL concepts, phonology, morphology, syntax and language in use. It's everything you always wanted to know about ASL but were afraid to ask.