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In a prior question I asked whether word order in ASL has a special significance, which naturally lead to another question: do any signed languages, that is languages communicated mostly if not fully through hand signs, have a case system to free up word order for, say, greater expressiveness or inflection?

Here I found a question along those lines, but it dealt specifically with inflection and not cases. An example of the type of case system I'm asking about is that of Latin, where agricola puerum necat means "the farmer kills the boy" while, though not in typical word order, agricolam puer necat means "the boy kills the farmer" though the word order remains the same.

Are there signed languages that use morphological case markers? Is that even possible?

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    I don't see how this is sufficiently distinct from the question you linked to - isn't morphological case generally considered to be a type of inflectional morphology? In which case, isn't your question encompassed by the question concerning signed languages and inflectional morphology? In fact, case morphology is explicitly mentioned in the question you link to. – P Elliott Sep 1 '13 at 15:16
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    ASL has morphology, but I don't know how inflectional it is; certainly I've never seen a paradigm, though I'm far from an expert. Ursala Bellugi-Klima's work on ASL morphology is what you want to consult. – jlawler Sep 1 '13 at 15:24
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    I've personally never understood why people always assume you can't have a case system with particles rather than inflection, or possibly something else. Of course I'm not sure how particles and inflection might be distinguished in signed languages either. – hippietrail Sep 2 '13 at 3:10
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    Sadly, the (World Atlas of Languages Strucutres Online)[wals.info/] doesn't appear to have enough data to answer your question. (This request)[wals.info/feature/combined/140A/49A] show that they have essentially no information on the case for 38 sign-languages (out of 40) of their database :-( – Frédéric Grosshans Sep 3 '13 at 17:24
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    possible duplicate of Do sign languages inflect? – P Elliott Oct 8 '13 at 13:25
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Sign languages generally do not have rich case systems because they tend to be much more head-marking than, say, English. By this I mean that a translation of your Latin sentences into a hypothetical sign language might be something like

BOY FARMER KILL-he-him

where he and him are verbal inflections that make it clear who killed whom. If we consider word order, then ASL and BSL both are like Latin: they have default word orders, but a sentence might deviate from it (for example to highlight the boy or farmer, or a contrast from an earlier sentence), which means that word order itself cannot unambiguously distinguish, for example, agents from patients, like English word order usually can. But that doesn't matter so much, because the distinction is marked on the verb.

As a rule, if verbs act this way in a given language, then noun phrases tend to be more head-marking too. It's rather like how Hebrew, Berber or Ainu do possession and this appears to be a linguistic universal. So for instance, "the farmer's boy" might be translated as "the farmer, his boy" in both ASL and BSL. So here there doesn't need to exist a genitive case either*.

That said, a pronouns are a slightly different consideration. For example English and Norwegian are both languages where pronouns have two or more forms, which have something to do with case, even though the nouns do not productively inflect for case. ASL is the same! Here are some examples from ASL:

  • The 1 handshape (extend the index finger but clench other fingers together into a fist) and point towards any person is for a subject or object pronoun, like I, me, he, they, them, etc.

  • The pronate B handshape (all four fingers straight out and parallel and touching) and point towards any person is for a possessive, like my, mine, his, their, etc.

  • The supinate B handshape, accompanied by a downward movement is an alternative to 1, which is rather like a T/V distinction except it may be used in any person, including 1st.

And I'm not aware of any other inflections in this morphological class.


*: Some sign languages are invented for didactic reasons and they artificially include morphology and most word order from the culture's spoken language. An example of this is SEE, which means Signed Exact English. These tend to be falling into disfavour now. I didn't describe these in my answer because I feel they are better described as a manually coded version of a spoken language.

  • Do you have any follow-up material about how these types of he-him inflections look and work? Not knowing much about ASL, my guess is they use spacial relationships but I'm curious what the real answer is. – acattle Feb 11 '18 at 5:34
  • @acattle, I have, but that might be out-of-scope for this answer. But if you ask a separate question, then just ping me and I'll try my best to answer it. – Wilson Feb 11 '18 at 10:24
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Auslan has a genitive marker, though I don't know if it should be called a case. I'm not aware of it having other case markers and the word order isn't free.

  • It seems like more of an adposition to me. Especially since it seems like a borrowing of English possessive 's, which is also not a case ending. Much less a "case system" which the OP asked about in the headline. – Wilson Dec 17 '18 at 10:05

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