Note from Uncle Dale: Necessity Breeds Simplicity

Hello everyone.

Uncle Dale here again. I always say I’m a “nerd for meaning.” When you are a “meaning nerd” such as I you get sucked into… discussions? debates? the odd fistfight, over the use or meaning or grammar structure of Sign Language. For example, in a previous post, I said “I’m not judging you, I’m grading you.” The first time I said that I was teaching a class and everyone laughed.  I was dead serious. So, we got into a “meaning nerd” type of discussion on the difference between judging and grading-and there is a huge difference.

Today one of my former students sucked me into a discussion on ASL grammar structure.  No, don’t go… this road does not lead to a lecture- well, not really… well, not a long lecture, but it’s fun and I will give you a prize for reading to the end. Well, more like a tool; YES, I have for you a tool if you press on to the end. A tool that I find myself using more than every now and again.

Ok. You know those times when someone says “Sign Language is just a visual way of showing English” and you just want to beat them, but you don’t, because that would be rude (yeah… we’ve had “fistfight” and “beating” in this post; I’ve gotta cut down on the Diet Coke).

So, no beatings, but what do you say.  Do you really want to delve into ASL linguistics with the masses, and just watch their eyes glaze over…Topic-Comment sentence structure, Subject-Verb-Object or Object-Subject-Verb, the ASL spectrum… no?

No. So, here is what your Uncle Dale does.

Imagine, if you will, a table- and on this table is every photograph ever taken by any camera anywhere (it’s not a real table–sorry, that was for my current and former students).

Someone has given you a phrase that it is vitally important for you to make sure the audience understands, however there is a sheet of soundproof glass between you and them.  Using only the tools nature provides (or at least the photo-printer provides) you must tell them… oh, um lets keep the theme… OH! you must tell them “I am sick of my family fighting all the time.” (Before you ask everything fine at home, I’m just in one of those moods. Ritalin DON’T FAIL ME NOW.)

Ok, “I’m sick of my family fighting all the time.” What is the first picture you hold up?

My Family (or your family). Why? Because visually your audience must understand that idea, My Family, as the visual anchor to understand what is to follow, because what is to follow is visually tethered to and must follow from this point; My Family is the “Visual Prime” (Subject or Topic).

My Family. Next picture?

Fighting. I’m pretty sure my family fighting had been documented photographically!

My Family-My Family Fighting.  Next picture?

My Family Fighting, again. Not the same picture though. Why? Because the phrase is “all the time” and if its the same picture you just get to “for a long time” incorporating only that one fight.

My Family-My Family Fighting-My Fighting Family.  Next picture?

My Family Fighting, AGAIN and again a different picture. Once is my family fighting, twice is my family fighting a lot, but three times is “allll the time.”

My Family-My Family Fighting-My Fighting Family-Fight Family Fight. Next picture?

Me, Being Sick.

There it is, ASL grammar charted by Visual Primacy.

My Family-Fight-Fight-Fight-Me Sick.

A highly accessible and simplified ASL grammar explanation for the masses.

As a tool it works for me when I have a weird English concept to deal with, or if I have tied myself in a knot with a client trying to make herself understood in ASL (or more to the point she had made herself perfectlyunderstandable I just need to apply the tool).  It’s a kind of linguistic knot loosener.

About this time, if there are any academics around, I get this withering stare for my debauching that which is enlightened.  “It is not that simple,” they say.

Well of course its not. But for the purpose for which it is meant it works pretty good. Simple is good.

Remember, why do we communicate?  People I mean. Why did people ever feel the need to engage with one another?

So they didn’t die.

We started to communicate so we could ask things like, “do you know where there is water?” and “if I sleep here will and animal eat me?”  We did it because we had to, and when you have to you make it as easy as you can.

Why did Sign Language develop?  Because it had to. Example… um. Let’s go with Adam and Eve!  They are out of the garden for a while, farm is going good and family is growing and boom, Deaf kid.  What is the easiest way to communicate with him? Visually. Signs. Because it’s necessary to communicate if he is going to survive and necessity breeds simplicity.  Like I said, if you have to do it you figure out the easiest way.  That is the way it has worked, and the way it still works


We just make it so much harder than it needs to be (enter a huge discussion on Manually Coded English and how everybody is looking to be Louis Braille… another time).

You know when you interpret something and it just seems too simple to be accurate?  It’s more often than not fine, but we question it because of its lack of complexity, forgetting to praise its simplicity.  Necessity breeds simplicity.

So there you go, visual primacy. My Family-Fight-Fight-Fight-Me Sick. done.

Told ya it’s a kind of fun, nifty little tool. Aren’t you glad you hung around?