419: Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language by Scott Liddell

by Gerard


419.705: Liddell, Scott K. Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 362 pp. ISBN 0-521-81620-3

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Language
  • 410: Linguistics
  • 419: Sign Languages
  • 419.7: American Sign Language
  • 419.705: Grammar and syntax of ASL

Until the 1950s, the signing language that deaf Americans used to communicate with each other was even considered a real language at all. William Stokoe, teaching at Gallaudet University (a school for the deaf), after taking a crash course in signing and watching his students, came to realize that was a full-fledged language. There are a finite number of hand shape, but when combined with position, motion, and facial expression, users can communicate an almost infinite variety of words and concepts. Scott Liddell’s Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language is a veritable crash for us all and a window into a world seldom explored until absolutely necessary.

While Liddell’s book reads much like a textbook, you will find yourself hard-pressed to not practice the examples of the signs he writes about. Starting with Stokoe’s work on the classification of American Sign Language, he illustrates the complexity of signs and how grammar works without sound. For as much as English requires our aural attention when spoken, ASL requires your absolute visual attention. The physical space in front of the signer from the top of their head to their waist and extended out to the length of their arms is the 3-D space where language is represented. Sign combination and directionality can completely change the meaning of a sentence, so once must be vigilant. Liddell’s exploration of the grammar of ASL is detailed almost to the point of being overwhelming, but is interesting nonetheless. This would make a good companion for anyone who is learning the language to get a deeper understanding of the both the construction and the context of some of the signs used.