Going on the general assumption that ASL is loosely rooted in English (only in the sense that it was developed in a country dominated by native English speakers, this is not to say that ASL is derived from English), it most likely does not have a case system. If this is the case, based on my (admittedly shallow) knowledge of morphology and syntax it should have some semblance of a fixed word order, though not necessarily the SVO of English.

Is word order, as in sequence of signs, strictly rigid in ASL, or is there a bit more freedom in sentence structure?

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    I'm downvoting this for now because of the vagueness of the question. Are you asking about whether word order is rigid or flexible in ASL? What is it specifically you'd like to know?
    – P Elliott
    Aug 29, 2013 at 19:26
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    There is also the question of what "word order" might possibly mean in a language where several simultaneous "words" are not only possible but common.
    – jlawler
    Aug 29, 2013 at 19:49
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    Simultaneity of words wouldn't negate the possibility of word order in a language, rather it could well result in a richer kind of word order. There might be rules about what kinds of words can come together as well as before or after one another, etc. I think this is a good question, if a little briefly worded. Aug 30, 2013 at 6:12
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    I haven't seen it mentioned here but in ASL you can "stack" symbols, i.e. facial markers, hand shape, manner of hand shape, all happen at the same time. I think in spoken languages this would be suprasegmentals. Aug 30, 2013 at 19:47
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    The question was indeed sloppy and vague, as I rushed it in class right at the end and did not write it with the standards of StackExchange in mind. I have rewritten it from scratch to improve the question in general, provide some context to the subject, and remove unnecessary detail.
    – Andy
    Aug 31, 2013 at 0:24

2 Answers 2


Although I am not an ASL speaker (signer? user?), your question interested me. After some quick research, the simple answer to your question seems to be yes, word order matters in ASL. Strictly speaking, ASL sentences follow the a basic SVO sentence structure.

Languages typically have a trade off between strict word order and inflectional complexity (see slide 13). In a language with no morphological case markings and free word order it would be impossible tell what was the subject and what was the object. Therefore, languages with free word order require morphological case markings while languages with strict word orders tend to lose case markings over time since they are redundant (or perhaps it is more accurate the say that strict word orders develop to allow case markings to be omitted).

So far as I can tell, ASL does not have any case marking signs, thus word order must be respected. I'd actually be interested to know if there are any sign languages which do have such markings.

It is important to note that ASL sentences can contain a "topic" which occurs at the beginning of the sentence. Therefore, a signer may wish to emphasize the object of a sentence by moving it to the front of the sentence, marking it as the sentence's topic. English doesn't really have a concept of topic but other languages do. For example, Korean, which assigns case morphologically, uses the 은/는 marker to denote topic. If it helps, you can think of it as a combination of "Yoda speak" and wh-fronting.

It is also worth noting that some sources claim that ASL users are typically familiar enough with English word order that they can understand English-ordered ASL, I suspect this is because, in addition to the fact that not all hearing-impaired people are completely deaf and thus may have learned English, even ASL users need to learn written English. However, ASL grammar is not the same as English grammar. Some of the big differences are the ability to omit subjects and the lack of a "to be" verb in ASL. I found this paper that summarizes a lot of the differences between ASL and English

Finally, as jlawyer mentioned, sentences in ASL are not typically a linear set of independent signs. Signs may be combined to change their meanings as well as the spacial relationships between signs is important to meaning.

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    Nice answer. One suggestion--maybe expand on the point about ASL users' familiarity with English syntax (or, more accurately, why one would ever expect them not to be familiar with it)? After browsing online I was able to find where ASL syntax differs from English syntax (beyond the topic-comment thing). But from just reading your answer the first time around I found myself thinking, "Wait, if ASL is SVO then it's the same as English, so of course they'd be familiar with English syntax!" Aug 30, 2013 at 15:11
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    @musicallinguist You bring up a good point and I have added some more detail about the differences between ASL and English syntax. However, I want to point out that basic word order is only one small part of grammar. There are also clausal structures, movement rules, and inflections. French is SVO but trivially differs from English in adjectival clauses; green house vs. maison verte, literally "house green". Mandarin Chinese is another SVO language that unsurprisingly differs from English, lacking verbal inflections such as tense.
    – acattle
    Aug 30, 2013 at 16:07
  • You have written a good answer here, but I've got a problem with your reasoning that In a language with no morphological case markings and free word order it would be impossible tell what was the subject and what was the object. ASL is much more head-marking than English/German/Latin. It's more like Swahili or Nahuatl. You can find out more over at linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/4369/… Feb 8, 2018 at 9:31

This is not an answer, but I'd like to correct a wrong assumption that you make at the beginning of your question :

Going on the general assumption that ASL is loosely rooted in English (only in the sense that it was developed in a country dominated by native English speakers, this is not to say that ASL is derived from English), it most likely does not have a case system.

However, ASL is rooted in FSL (French sign language) and is totally different from the British sign language ! To cite Wikipedia sign language page,

Sign languages generally do not have any linguistic relation to the spoken languages of the lands in which they arise. The correlation between sign and spoken languages is complex and varies depending on the country more than the spoken language. For example, the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand all have English as their dominant language, but American Sign Language (ASL), used in the US and most parts of Canada, is derived from French Sign Language whereas the other three countries sign dialects of British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language. Similarly, the sign languages of Spain and Mexico are very different, despite Spanish being the national language in each country, and the sign language used in Bolivia is based on ASL rather than any sign language that is used in a Spanish-speaking country.[18] Variations also arise within a 'national' sign language which don't necessarily correspond to dialect differences in the national spoken language; rather, they can usually be correlated to the geographic location of residential schools for the deaf.

and (further down on the same page)

The grammars of sign languages do not usually resemble that of spoken languages used in the same geographical area; in fact, in terms of syntax, ASL shares more with spoken Japanese than it does with English.

According to your reasoning, Russian Sign Language, should have cases, since Russian has 6 cases. However, it is also case-less, as member of the FSL-family.

Which is to say that if ASL shares a characteristic of English (like e.g. lack of cases or word-order rigidity), it has a priori no reason to come from English.

  • If it's not an answer, why not comment beneath the question?
    – P Elliott
    Sep 3, 2013 at 18:16
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    Because 1. it's too long for a comment. 2. It can been seen as an answer to the 1st half of the question, which was not phrased as a question, but as an hypothesis. 3. Because I hope it will help dispel a common held myth about sign languages by being more visible as an answer. Sep 4, 2013 at 10:33
  • I knew this and I'm now sorry I didn't spot the false assumption in the question and comment so much earlier )-: I don't know what to do with a good informative answer like this one that doesn't answer the OP's actual question \-: Sep 6, 2013 at 4:20

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