American Sign Language Syntax

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Homonyms in ASL

The definition of homonyms in spoken English mean two or more words having the same spelling or pronunciation meanings or origins, but they all have completely different meanings. Instead of “homonyms” in American Sign Language (ASL) there is a concept where a single sign has multiple meanings. In order to understand the actual meaning of the sign, it is either interpreted through the context of the situation, lip reading, and the expression/gesture used when expressing the sign.

For example, there is a single sign for act, drama, show, or theater:



But the body movement and expression is slightly different when play/theater/show and drama are signed:







Similarly to spoken English, there is synonyms, which are one or two words that have the same meanings. In ASL, there are multiple ways to sign to a single word. For example, play as in play with toys and play as in play theater.

Play with toys:


PLAY as in theater or show:


American Sign Language also has slangs similar to spoken English. The slangs or idioms in ASL do not make sense when used in spoken English. For example, in ASL, 258 means “very interesting”. There are also other slangs such as “missed the train” or “true-biz”. Neither of them make sense in spoken English. On the other hand, phrases or idioms in spoken English does not translate well in ASL and would have to be signed their literal meanings.

For example, “kill two birds with one stone” would be signed as “get both things done at the same time”, or “jack of all trades, master of none” would be signed as “good at doing multiple things, but not an expert on one thing”. Watch two slang videos here (1) & (2).

The sentence structure and grammar is also very different. In ASL, the sentences are condensed form of spoken English. In spoken English, a complete sentence would be, “I feel sick with a sore throat and an annoying headache,” but in ASL, it is expressed as, ME FEEL SICK ME THROAT HURT-throat HURT-head ANNOYED.”

To watch the video and to learn American Sign Language, you can sign up with Start ASL. In ASL, high level vocabulary words do not exist and there is one sign for that word and its synonyms. An example would be terms such as intelligent, genius, clever, bright all signed simply as SMART:




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