Grammar: Topicalization in ASL

The basic word order in ASL is Subject-Verb-Object However, often, when people are signing they will change the order of their sentences by signing the object first, and the subject and verb last—Object-Subject-Verb—this is called "topicalization" or "topic-comment-structure". You may have heard someone tell you that ASL’s sentence structure is sometimes "Time-Topic-Comment", and this is what they meant. (This is a type of "inflection"—many languages have ways of inflecting sentences.)

When determining how to sign a sentence in ASL, the first thing you must ask yourself is "what is the topic – what is the ‘thing’ that I am talking about?" The topic may be a person, a place, a subject, an idea, a feeling. Once you’ve determined the topic, you then determine the comment – "what is it that I want to say about the topic?" Now that you’ve chosen your topic and comment, you are ready to sign a grammatically correct ASL sentence.

Usually for the object (aka the "topic"), the eyebrows will be raised slightly to indicate this inflection is occurring. Notice that the subject and the verb are still connected even though we have moved the object with topicalization.

Sometimes the topic and comment are interchangeable – meaning, there is more than one way to sign the sentence. You may choose your topic based on what makes sense visually. ASL is a visual language, so think of each sentence as a picture. What part of the picture would you draw first?

For example: For the sentence "I cut the flower", you must first establish a flower before you are able to cut it.

I cut the flower.
FLOWER I CUT

Another example: For the sentence "Ms Solanas is my teacher", you must first establish the teacher before you are able to describe her.

Ms Solanas is my teacher.
MY TEACHER NAME M-S S-O-L-A-N-A-S

Another example: For the sentence "The student is tall, handsome and has black hair", you must first establish the student before you are able to describe him.

The student is tall, handsome, and has black hair.
STUDENT TALL HANDSOME HAIR BLACK

Another example: For the sentence "My chemistry book in on the table", you must first establish the table before the book is able to be "placed on" it.

My chemistry book is on the table
TABLE MY CHEMISTRY BOOK WHERE THERE

Here's another example:

Jared passed a Math test.
MATH TEST J-A-R-E-D PASS

A more complicated example: For the sentence "My sister and I went to my mom’s house", you must first establish the house before you can go to it.

My sister and I went to my mom’s house.
MY MOM HER HOUSE MY SISTER ME TWO-OF-US GO

A more abstract example might be:

I am so happy because I passed the test.
TEST PASS I HAPPY

Another abstract example might be:

I know that three plus five equals eight.
THREE PLUS FIVE EQUALS EIGHT I KNOW-THAT

Here's another abstract example:

I don't like that my brother and his girlfriend broke up.
MY BROTHER HIS GIRLFRIEND TWO-OF-THEM BREAK UP I DISLIKE

Remember, learning the grammatical structures of a second language is challenging. It takes time and requires practice and experience. Over time, it will begin to make sense to you.

English vs. ASL: English uses many articles, prepositions, participles (-ing words), etc that do not have 1 to 1 translations into ASL. For example, the, a, an, it, of, is, are, and am, do not have direct translations into ASL. When re-writing your sentences in an ASL gloss, you do not need to include these words.

HINT: In most cases (but not all) you should put any time concepts at the beginning of the sentence, even before the topic.

For example:

My grandparents are going to the mall on Friday.
FRIDAY M-A-L-L MY GRANDMA GRANDPA GO

Another example:

Last Wednesday, my mother bought a new dress.
ONE-WEEK-AGO WEDNESDAY NEW DRESS MY MOM BUY