Unraveling the Grammar of Sign Language

Carol Padden’s analysis of verbs in sign languages has influenced similar work on sign languages the world over. | Erik Jepsen, University of California San Diego

In the late 1950s, linguist Noam Chomsky proposed a radical idea: The ability to speak language was an innate, universal human endowment derived from the brain’s ability to generate grammar. Since the Chomsky Revolution, as it became known, linguists have labored to dissect the nuances of thousands of languages, stripping them down to their grammatical gears, their syntactic systems. Yet for many years, one type of language remained untouched: sign languages. The reason, says AAAS Fellow Carol Padden, is that many linguists didn’t consider sign languages, including American Sign Language (ASL), to be languages at all.

“I was getting very different views [of sign language] at the time, and, of course, now people understand that it is a language,” says Padden about ASL.

Currently Dean of Social Sciences at UC San Diego, Padden was one of the earliest to write about the grammar and culture of ASL. More recently, the 61-year-old has been examining a newly formed sign language, developed some three generations ago in a small community in Israel.  

Padden’s first major inroad into sign language linguistics began in the 1970s when, then a sophomore in linguistics at Georgetown, she began working in the lab of William Stokoe, a professor of English literature at Gallaudet University, the nation’s oldest school of higher learning for deaf students.

Stokoe was challenging a belief held by many of his faculty colleagues—some hearing, some deaf—that ASL was not a real language. In Stokoe’s lab, he and others had started the time-consuming work of dissecting ASL and its many signs, painstakingly compiling what they found into a comprehensive dictionary, a notable first.

“When he set up his linguistics laboratory on campus, people thought, ‘What is he doing?’ He was putting together a dictionary of sign and people couldn’t figure out what the relevance of this was,” says Padden.

At the time, the prevailing attitude, says Padden, was that ASL was mostly English translated into a kind of sophisticated pantomime, but was not its own language. She didn’t hold with this view and neither did Stokoe, who Padden says inspired her to take a more contrarian approach in her studies, which she did.

Padden went on to apply the same Chomsky-inspired techniques that had been so fruitful for dissecting spoken languages to the study of ASL, helping to prove that ASL was not only a legitimate, complex language but also markedly different from English.   

The daughter of French Sign Language born of deaf communities in Paris and later transported to the United States in the early 1800s, ASL is decidedly not English, though they do have some features in common. Unlike English, ASL lacks a version of the verb "to be." It lacks many English-style affixes, such as the suffix -ed used to show past tense, a trait it shares with Chinese. Instead, ASL relies on words like “yesterday” or “tomorrow” to add tense. And while ASL sentences can have the same word order as English sentences, where subjects are followed by verbs and then objects (as in, "Carol studies linguistics") ASL often doesn’t follow this strict word order.  

“ASL can change its word order in a way that English cannot,” explains Padden. “Signs can move their position. So how do you know if a sign is the subject of the sentence or the object?”

That was the question Padden hoped to answer when she entered her Ph.D. program in 1978 at UC San Diego, where she has been ever since. Studying under David Perlmutter and Ursula Bellugi, the latter a pivotal figure in ASL linguistics, Padden tackled the subject/object problem by employing a series of tests to tease out how ASL used verb inflection (changes in the form of the verb sign) in lieu of a strict sentence order to determine what was a sentence’s subject and what was its object.

In the 1970s, linguists started describing ASL as largely a spatial not a linear language, where subjects and objects in sentences were largely determined by their relationship to each other in the physical space they occupied when being signed. As part of her graduate thesis, Padden proposed a framework to help explain how this spatial grammar determined subjects and objects.

Padden determined that ASL has three basic classes of verbs that, in effect, help standardize the relationship between subject and object in space and that it does this in a somewhat analogous way to how Latin conjugation works for nouns and verbs. The categories, in turn, determine how words are inflected, which shows up as slight modifications or directional cues to the original sign, in much the same way English speakers might add an –ed or an –s to the end of a word.

Padden’s analysis of verbs in sign languages has influenced similar work on sign languages the world over, which is where Padden now focuses much of her attention. Starting in early the 2000s, Padden and several of her colleagues began studying the emergence of a new sign language used in a remote Bedouin village in Israel. The result of a high incidence of genetic deafness, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) is believed to be one of the few instances where researchers have been able to track the spontaneous emergence of a sign language.

“It’s impressive how much signing there is in the village. In a village with maybe 3,000 people, 500 were using it,” says Padden.

Padden and her colleagues have written several papers on their work with the Bedouin community, including one describing ABSL’s word order, an order they suspect—like other sign languages—may become more fluid as the language evolves. The story of their research was the subject of the 2007 book Talking Hands.

“We don’t know a lot about how sign languages form and change over time, that’s an entirely new field, and that is why we went to study [Al-Sayyid] Bedouin Sign Language.”  

Beyond grammar, Padden’s other lasting impact on the study of sign language has been to chronicle the history and culture of ASL. Once known as “playground sign” because it was banned in many classrooms but lived on in playgrounds, bathrooms, and other unsurveilled niches, ASL has a rich history. Padden has written about ASL in a number of papers and in her book Deaf in America, which she wrote with her husband, Tom Humphries.

Padden says ASL is close to her heart because she grew up with it. Born deaf, Padden learned ASL from her parents, who are also deaf, parents who were surprised when she decided to study ASL as a true language, something neither believed.

Today, Padden says she is concerned about the impacts new technologies, such as cochlear implants and genetic counseling, could have on how we view sign languages, possibility leading to the perception that they are outmoded or no longer necessary. While she welcomes innovation, she warns that as a society we should be cautious not to make our decisions based on what we feel is normal or average. She summed up her thoughts in a commencement speech at the Swarthmore College, which recently rewarded her with an honorary doctoral degree:

“We too often believe that humans must live a certain way, must believe certain things, and must behave as expected. But, in fact, there is a stunning diversity of ways in which humans use language and live in cultures.”

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