A World of Shape and Texture: American Sign Language and Navajo

To continue the conversation started earlier, about ASL’s animist/indigenous roots, I want to point out another really beautiful connection.

But first, to sum up: I believe strongly that indigenous languages prioritize observation of action/behavior, skillfull mimicry, and the illumination of relationships and roles. This stands in stark opposition to modern languages that possess the verb “to be”,  languages which purpose to fit the world into static categories (“he is a carpenter”), distract/disconnect actors from consequences (“mistakes were made”), and prioritize abstract value judgements (“that’s evil”) over concrete observations (“I feel scared when I see that”).

Both ASL and Navajo (along with all the other Athabaskan languages of North America) use a system of classifiers that purpose to communicate the shape and texture of objects, and thus the behavior of the object in space.

Navajo speakers modify the verbs (for example, “to give”) they use, according to the following list of shape/behaviors (thank you Wikipedia):

Classifier+Stem Label Explanation Examples
-ʼą́ SRO Solid Roundish Object bottle, ball, boot, box, etc.
-yį́ LPB Load, Pack, Burden backpack, bundle, sack, saddle, etc.
-ł-jool NCM Non-Compact Matter bunch of hair or grass, cloud, fog, etc.
-lá SFO Slender Flexible Object rope, mittens, socks, pile of fried onions, etc.
-tį’ SSO Slender Stiff Object arrow, bracelet, skillet, saw, etc.
-ł-tsooz FFO Flat Flexible Object blanket, coat, sack of groceries, etc.
-tłééʼ MM Mushy Matter ice cream, mud, slumped-over drunken person, etc.
-nil PLO1 Plural Objects 1 eggs, balls, animals, coins, etc.
-jaaʼ PLO2 Plural Objects 2 marbles, seeds, sugar, bugs, etc.
-ką́ OC Open Container glass of milk, spoonful of food, handful of flour, etc.
-ł-tį́ ANO Animate Object microbe, person, corpse, doll, etc.
[it tickles my funny bone when I see that ice cream, mud, and drunks all fall into the same category]

ASL does the same! When referring to a subject after the signer has signified it as the topic, the signer uses stand-in classifiers, like pronouns, according to the subjects shape/behavior, to modify the signed verb. You can see that a signer uses, non-inclusively (please follow the link for what the classifiers actually look like):

1 Cl for single individuals walking or standing, a pencil lying on its side…

2 Cl for two people walking or standing, one person sitting or standing, a snake tongue…

3 Cl for vehicles, or three people walking or standing…

4 Cl for four people walking or standing, stripes, a fence, bars, teeth bared, bangs, whiskers…

5 Cl same as 4 Cl, plus five people standing,  falling leaves…

A Cl for stationary objects, such as statues, bottles on the shelf, objects on a table…

B Cl for surfaces, walls, floors, roads, shelves, clothing, flat objects

And so on, for eight more classifiers that delineate shape and motion.  Do you see the incredible similarity between the two languages? If anything, it looks like the Athabaskan languages evolved to accomodate all the wonderful information communicated by a primary, signed language. In any case, signed languages like ASL demonstrate the remarkable power of illuminated relationships, roles, form, and behavior, when communicating. Imagine what kind of poetry you could create, if you related to the world in this way! Imagine the kind of poetry that native ASL speakers create right now, because of the strength and beauty of their language, and I think you can understand the profound pride and identity possessed by the Deaf community.

Written by Willem