Auslan Grammar and Structure

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Auslan has full grammatical structure, just like any other language. The grammar of Auslan is broken down into its visual parts. These are often called the Grammatical Features of Auslan.

Some of these features are:

Negation (no or not) is indicated by shaking the head while signing. See also the signs for NOT, NOTHING, NO and NONE. There are also special signs for CAN'T, DOESN'T MATTER, DON'T KNOW and so forth.

Affirmation (yes or agree) is indicated by nodding.

Pronouns (I, you, he, she etc) are usually indicated by pointing the index finger at the actual person, animal or object. A glance or point in that direction will then be taken to refer again to the same person, animal or thing.

An absent person will be located in space "over there" in the direction in which they are likely to be. Pointing again to that spot is a pronoun referring to that person again.

To indicate Possession (ownership), the pointing becomes a full flat hand with the signer's fingertips up, or it becomes a closed hand. In either, the palm is out towards the location of the person, animal or thing.

Facial Expression
Facial expression is vital to Auslan. The facial expression produced with a sign can indicate questions, negation, displeasure, agreement, intensity (very) and so forth.

Sometimes, facial expression can alter the meaning of the sign. For example, a sad or serious face when signing happy will show clearly that you are NOT happy.

Other Key Grammatical Features

The hands can be used to 'describe' objects in the air. The hands can indicate all the characteristics of the shape and construction of objects: a box, a car, a boat, a tree, a house. The object being described must first be identified. There are no exceptions to this rule. Sign or spell the name of the object first, or point to it.

The hands held in the shape of the object can then represent the object within the conversation. The handshape becomes a temporary symbol for that object. Any activity or movement of the object can be shown. Movement of the handshape represents movement of the object. This is known as verb inflection. The hands can be used to represent people, animals and other animate things as well as objects.

These temporary handshapes are Classifiers. They describe in detail the features of a particular object, animal, person or thing. This item must be labelled first, or a classifier is meaningless. A classifier is not a sign, but many signs like HOUSE and BOOK have evolved from classifiers, over time.

The characteristics of two signs can be exactly the same, except that in one, the palm faces backwards and in the other the palm faces forwards, or in some other direction. For example, with "your" and "front", the difference is in the way the palm faces. This is the orientation of the hand or hands.

Direction of movement
The characteristics of two signs can be exactly the same, except that the hand points or moves in a different direction for each different meaning. For example, "there" and "here", or "look at me" and "look over there", or "give it to him" and "give it to me". The direction of the sign tells the observer where to look or move. This is the Auslan feature Direction.

Two signs may be the same in every way, except that one moves and the other is fixed. eg. "clever" and "know". They may be the same in every way except that one may move from side to side while the other rocks, eg. "which" and "or", which have the same handshape and location. These two signs both move, but in quite different ways. The difference is in their Movement.

Each movement has a path through space. The arrows drawn on some of the photographs in this dictionary attempt to represent this path.

Handshape is very important in the pronunciation of signs. Two signs may look the same in every way except that each starts with a different handshape. For instance, "beach" and "sheep" have similar movement, orientation, location and direction, but the handshapes are distinctly different, and the meanings are not even related.

The difference is their Handshape, which is another important Auslan feature. For a full description of the variety of handshapes of Auslan, see:

* Johnston, Trevor "Auslan Dictionary. A Dictionary of the Sign Language of the Australian Deaf Community", Deafness Resources, 1989;
* The CD-Rom - "Signs of Australia - A Dictionary of Auslan (Australian Sign Language)" edited by Trevor Johnston, Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, 1997.

The position of the hands in signing space or on the body can be vital. Consider "shy" and "wilful". The handshapes are the same. The movements are the same, yet they mean very different things. One is made on the cheek, and the other on the chin. The location of the finger tip at the start of the sign is different. This is the Auslan feature Location.

Signing Space
The space reaching forward to arms' length in front of a signing person, reaching from above their head to about waist level, and across their body from elbow to elbow is their Signing Space. Each person has a different signing space. It is the space they will use for most of their signing. Only a few signs such as "knee" and "dog" will be made outside this imaginary 'cube'. It is often called "neutral space".

Some people make small signs and use a small signing space. Other people are more flamboyant and make larger movements. Their signing space is quite large.

People will alter their signing space from time to time. When they are in crowded places, or when it is appropriate to be still, their signing space will become quite small. It is not a particularly fixed area.

There are various ways to show numbers and quantity. It is correct to give the actual number, as in "six boys", "one thousand sheep" and "23 dollars". It is also correct to use terms such as "many", "lot", "few", "all" and "some".

Other methods of showing plural may best be learnt through conversation, or in class.

More facts about Auslan

Auslan is a language. There is often not an exact one-to-one correspondence between Auslan signs and English words. One Auslan sign can represent a single English word. However, some signs can only be represented in English by a whole phrase or even a full sentence.

There is a variety of dialects of Auslan across Australia, as well as regional variations in sign pronunciation.

The concept of "parts of speech" does not apply to Auslan in the same way as in English. For instance, some signs can be a noun and a verb, depending on the context of their usage.

Auslan can describe thoughts, pictures, actions, places, ideas (concrete and abstract) and experiences. With Auslan, everything that can be spoken can be represented on the hands. Auslan makes communication fully visual.

Auslan is such a visual communication system that ideas can be transferred readily even when the formal signs for certain words or concepts are not yet known. This means that deaf children will be able to understand and think about concepts even before they have learnt the relevant vocabulary. It also means that discussions about new concepts can happen at the most opportune times, by-passing the "vocabulary learning" stage.