General Question

Noon's avatar

Does American Sign Language have "passive voice"?

Asked by Noon (1900points) March 21st, 2008

Not sure how many people on here know ASL well enough, but I’ve been trying to find articles and information on passive constructions in American Sign Language. It appears it was once thought to not have Passive Voice but current research is saying other wise.

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5 Answers

Mtl_zack's avatar

in one of my classes, there was a deaf girl who could understand the aggressiveness of the voice by other features such as the eyes or shaking of the head, or even the movement of the hands while doing sign language. sign language isnt exclusively with the hands.

robmandu's avatar

For future respondents, from Wikipedia:

In grammar, the voice (also called gender or diathesis) of a verb describes the relationship between the action (or state) that the verb expresses and the participants identified by its arguments (subject, object, etc.). When the subject is the agent or actor of the verb, the verb is in the active voice. When the subject is the patient, target or undergoer of the action, it is said to be in the passive voice.

For example, in the sentence:

The cat ate the mouse

the verb “ate” is in the active voice, but in the sentence:

The mouse was eaten by the cat

the verbal phrase “was eaten” is passive.


That out of the way, I actually don’t know. The few deaf folks I’m acquainted with actually shy away from sign language.

Noon's avatar

Thanks for clearing that up ;-)

Yes the use of non-manuals is extensive in ASL and is not limited to “aggressiveness” or tone of “voice”. Non-manuals are used for topicalization, adjective and adverbial modifiers, and question modifiers to name few. There are even some expressions in sign that are completely non manual. The one example that comes to mind is the “No-not-yet” mouth shape.

But again, my question is about the “passive voice”.

JCS's avatar

Based on my reading of the following website to which I have provided a link, I would say that there is a passive voice in ASL. This discussion occurred on A journal for American Sign Language students and teachers:

Much of your confusion (and that of others) has to do with the fact that you can use either a subject or object as your “topic” in a sentence.

If you use the subject as your topic, you are using “active voice.”
Example: The boy threw the ball. (BOY THROW BALL)

If you use the object as your topic your are using “passive voice.”
Example: The ball was thrown by the boy. (BALL? BOY THROW).

Note that the active voice: BOY THROW BALL is definitely SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT word order.
The passive voice is: OBJECT-SUBJECT-VERB word order.

Both of those can be considered TOPIC COMMENT:
Topic: BOY Comment: THROW BALL (active voice)
Topic: BALL Comment: BOY THROW (passive voice)

In the passive voice sentence the “ball” which is actually the object is being used as the topic, and the comment is that it “was thrown by the boy.”

So, you can see that the topic can be either a subject or an object.
A “topic” is simply that to which a comment is referring. A topic is what you are talking about.


delgiudc's avatar

Janzen et al (2001) wrote a paper on this very topic. They say that topicalization is not the same as passivization.

They claim that ASL can make sentences like “I was named MJ” or “He was given medicine” by the use of a simple agent drop and possibly a role shift.

You don’t typically find overt marking on the verb in an ASL passive (English, for example, marks the passive verb with the past tense morphology -ed) and word order doesn’t always help you because you typically find the patient of the passive sentence will still appear in object position or be dropped entirely.

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