Sign Order in bsl topic/subject/object – Comments

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Sign Order in BSL

Topic/subject/object – Comments (adjective) - Action (verb)
The man is walking over the bridge – English

Bridge man walk -BSL
British Sign Language is a visual language and as such requires the development of a visual image in the mind of the observer. You need to ‘set the scene’ so that the other person is able to visualize/see what is being communicated to them. When painting a picture, for example, one would first paint the largest object and then add the other, smaller elements, gradually adding more details as the painting develops. In the example above, the largest object is the bridge, not the man. Signing bridge first allows the observer to get an image in his/her mind of the scenario being created. If one signed man first, the scenario is still uncertain. It is the bridge that is the largest part of the story. The man is secondary. Thirdly, one needs to describe what is happening in this ‘picture’ we are drawing, so the action (verb) comes last, i.e. bridge man walk. Essentially, there is a bridge, with a man on it, and he is walking… bridge man walk.
Note: The additional information in this story, i.e. ‘over’ the bridge (or under it, or around it, or whatever the case may be) is provided by how one signs ‘walk’ but does not require an extra sign, just a modification of the ‘walk’ sign. But this is not related to BSL structure; it is about your pronunciation.

In reality, however, one would probably not tell this story without giving a reason; for example, the man is walking over the bridge…okay, you might ask, but what for? He may be catching a bus. In English one would say to catch a bus; in BSL, one would use a rhetorical question, in this case, why. So, in BSL, bridge man walk why bus catch…don’t forget the verb (to catch) goes after the subject (bus), the same as we did earlier.

Do you like your coffee strong? – English

Coffee strong like? –BSL
The concept of ‘topic’ might be alien to the everyday English speaker as one might argue the topic of the above scenario is all three elements…the man, the bridge and the fact he is walking over it! Perhaps another example might be clearer. In the question above, it can be broken into its three main elements…coffee (the topic), strong (the comment) and whether you like it (the verb). In fact there is a fourth element…that it is a question…but more on that later. The order (in BSL) follows the same structure as the earlier example but it is perhaps simpler to see what the topic is …as opposed to deciding if it is the man or the bridge.

The man walked to the shop –English

Shop man walk - BSL
In the English version of this example you can see, by the use of the suffix (–ed) on the end of the verb (walk), that this is happening in the past. But in BSL the verb walk is the same whether it happened today, yesterday or last year…there is no suffix to provide this important element. To give the observer the necessary information to determine when this story takes place, one needs to add a time marker. And this would always be done first. For example, yesterday shop man walk. Like the earlier example, it allows the observer to develop an image in their mind of the scenario being created. If one signs yesterday at the end of the story (or sentence), as in English, the observer is left wondering (and waiting impatiently to find out) when all this is actually occurring.

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