I saw the statement a few times that sign languages inflect in the same way that spoken languages do, but all examples I came across refer to phenomena that I would classify as word formation rather than actual inflection.

(Edit.) So my question is this: does any sign language possess a unit (hand or finger movement, facial expression, anything really) that:

  1. makes no sense if used alone,
  2. modifies the grammatical (syntactic, if you will) function of the word it is attached to,
  3. does not modify the semantics of the word it is attached to, and
  4. can be used with at least an entire group of words (see below).

My guess would be that notions such as case, number or gender could be expressed in this way. Or maybe some sign language requires some kind of agreement between e.g. an adjective and a noun?

Examples of what I'm not interested in: 1. ASL for 'person' used after a verb (because it makes sense if used alone); 2. and 3. exaggerating the ASL sign for 'big' to obtain 'huge' (because it's the semantics that is modified, not the grammatical function); 4. signing slow slower in ASL to denote 'very slow' (because it's limited to this one word).

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    Kamil, this is an interesting question. I wonder, though, if we can tell the difference between an inflection and an analytic construction in a gestural language? Mar 24, 2012 at 1:28
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    At the risk of getting shot down by all the clever linguists around here - but isn't the difference between an inflection and a stand-alone word just one of spelling; and therefore unique to written language (as opposed to spoken or signed language)? So, for example, if English present participles were always written with the "-ing" broken off, (*"I am read ing the newspaper") then "ing" would be a particle, rather than an inflective suffix; but the spoken language would be identical.
    – user780
    Mar 24, 2012 at 4:06
  • @MarkBeadles This is just what I thought when I first saw the statement, and what brought me eventually to post this question :) In fact, yes, we can. For example, in ASL one may intensify an adjective by exaggerating its sign: sign slow slower or make a bigger movement in happy to change them to 'very slow' and 'very happy'. As it all happens within one sign, I would say it is a synthetic construction.
    – kamil-s
    Mar 24, 2012 at 7:43
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    @david-wallace, "is the difference between an inflection and a stand-alone word just one of spelling; and therefore unique to written language (as opposed to spoken or signed language)" would make an excellent question, please ask it!
    – kaleissin
    Mar 24, 2012 at 10:58
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    Ursala Bellugi-Klima demonstrated ASL derivational morphology decades ago. Inflection may be a different matter, however, since the distinction between derivation and inflection is based on concepts that may not be have valid analogs in SL.
    – jlawler
    Mar 24, 2012 at 16:05

2 Answers 2


ASL inflects verbs for aspect, by modifying the motion component of the sign. For most verbs simple aspect is a single movement; this changes to a continuous circling motion for progressive aspect. There are a zillion others.

It can't be even produced on its own, let alone make sense; it can be used with any noun; modifies the morphological function of the word by changing the aspect part of a {verb+aspect} bimorphemic word; does not modify the semantics of the verb part.

Testing it against the criteria in jlawler's link, above: 1. It does not change the part of speech; it stays a verb 3. It affects every verb productively 2& 4. That circular motion isolated by itself is an exact equivalent to the English -ing morpheme, so it relates to the same semantics outside the word, and plays the same role in the tense/aspect system as the English counterpart. 5. doesn't apply as all this stuff happens simultaneously.

Excellent descriptions are given in:

Klima, Edward S., and Ursula Bellugi. 1979. Signs of language. Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press.

Valli, Clayton and Ceil Lucas. 1995. Linguistics of American Sign Language: an introduction. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press.

  • Thanks for the effort but this isn't really what I was interrsted in. If you look at my criteria again, your answer is ok with points 1 and 4 but not really with 2 and 3.
    – kamil-s
    Mar 26, 2012 at 19:51
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    This has been the standard analysis of sign morphology for thirty years, so if you have objections to it you'll have to be more specific. Morphological and syntactic functions are not the same things, for one. This is non-linear phonology so you will not find stems and affixes, but internal inflection with paradigms on the movement tier while the others remain unchanged;the syllable peak alternates on the order of sing-sang-sung. Multiple morphemes expressed simultaneously is the norm in visual languages, and the movement component of the sign is a separate morpheme added to the base tier.
    – Joe Martin
    Mar 28, 2012 at 6:10
  • I understand. I don't at all mind inflection being internal. I just don't see how aspect changes the grammatical meaning, and I wouldn't agree it doesn't change the semantics. I don't want to start a theoretical discussion because I've never seen one lead to any practically useful conclusions. I'll just ask: any other inflection, apart from aspect?
    – kamil-s
    Mar 28, 2012 at 6:44
  • Agreement is the other standard example, but your question isn't about signed language it's about the definition of inflection.
    – Joe Martin
    Mar 28, 2012 at 16:04
  • No. If I were interested in the definition of inflection, I would have asked about that. But I asked about anything in signed languages that would fulfill my criteria. I don't care what framework calls it what, or whether your idea of what inflection is is incompatible with mine, because this is merely a label, while I'm interested in actual facts. So agreement, you say?
    – kamil-s
    Mar 28, 2012 at 16:53

You're not the first to ask these questions. Scott Liddell (2003) argues that sign languages are basically inflectionless languages, and I must say, I find his reasoning persuasive. Recently, for example, Corbett (2006) has argued that so called 'agreement verbs' in sign languages don't actually represent examples of agreement, and this is one of the major types of sign modification proposed to be an example of inflection.

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