To Be Or Not
Analysis of
Be to be verbs in ASL

Many linguistic challenges
face sign
language interpreters every day. O ne
prominent challenge is interpreting to be
verbs from English into American Sign
Language. The English verb to be is
used as a function verb for verb phases,
renaming subjects or objects, functioning
intrinsically, etc
. (Lennie, 2016). All English verbs in
clauses are conjugated to make the
subject and tense
(Lennie, 2016). These features present
themselves in different ways in ASL. ASL
has no direct
verb that means to be, but does possess
types of verbs that can convey an
equal meaning. This research will look
at four different interpreters approach
to take a spoken
English sentence with the verb to be, and
producing an ASL utterance of equal

Literature Review
The research surrounding verbs in ASL have
seen a variety of publications. O ne of
these is a chapter written by Carol Padden
in a book called Sign Lang uag e
R e s e arch: The o re tica l Iss u e s (Padden
1990). Paddens research introduced three
main types of ASL verbs: plain, inflecting
(agreement), and spatial. These three verb
types in ASL help define how verbs
function in ASL and thus how interpreters
can use these to interpret. The second
research source used for this paper was
written in 1988 by William Stokoe and E.
Lynn Jacobowitz. Their article in the 60th
Volume of Sign Language Studies looks
into how ASL expresses tense in their
verbs. Their research that, though ASL
does not conjugate their verbs in the
same way English does (Ie. Come, came),
ASL indicates tense at a different linguistic
level than English. The third source for
this research looked at deaf students
acquisition of English verbs. This research
done by Berent et al. compared deaf
students understanding of intransitive and
transitive verbs to that of their hearing


Billy Sims
Data Collection/
For the process of this research paper we will be looking at three
different sources of interpreting from English to ASL. Each source
will have three sections that will be analyzed. The sections chosen
for this paper were chosen based on the English use of to be.
Primarily this research will look at the verb when it is used by
itself and not as a verb phrase. For example, I chose sentences that
contained subjective complements like I am a teacher, where the
verb is an intransitive verb renaming the subject. Most of the
sentences analyzed where simple sentence that followed Englishs
Subject Verb order.
There were three videos analyzed for this research. The first was a
commencement address for the graduating class of 2012 at the
University of Iowa College of Pharmacy. The second video used a
TEDx talk done in 2010. This was a presentation done by a deaf
white male, who was deaf but spoke and had cochlear implants.
The third and final video was a University of South Florida 2013
Student Success Conference

Analysis and

The results of looking at to be verb
placements were mildly surprising. The
videos used to collect this data showed
that there are four approaches to
interpreting to be verbs. The most used
in this research was Verb Transfer, a
term created for this research to identify
when an interpreter changes the structure
of the utterance to have the verb be placed
on another word/sign. The second most
used strategy for to be was tied between
Verb Replacement and Subject
Identification. Both are terms made up
for this research, a Verb Replacement
takes the to be verb and finds and ASL
equivalent. This is different from transfer
because the verb is still in the same format
as the English utterance, but uses an ASL
Subject Identification was an approach
used when the to be verb was
intransitive and functioning as a subjective
complement, where the interpreter was
identifying the subject, the noun that
renamed the subject, and the subject again.
The final approach was Verb Drop where
the original English sentence and the ASL
utterance had the same structure, but the
ASL utterance was lacking the to be
verb or an equivalent. In the 11 utterances
looked at, 55% were Verb Transfer, 18%
were Verb Replacement, 18% were
Subject Identification, and 9% were
Verb Drop.


Sign language interpretation from English to ASL contain
many different approaches and challenges. A frequent
challenge with English to ASL interpretation is handling
Englishs use of to be verbs. These verbs are function
verbs that re-describe the subject, work in phrases to
indicate tense, and describe states of being. This research
looked at three different interpreters, and their approaches
to interpreting to be verb phrases into ASL. In the 11
utterances looked at, 55% were Verb Transfer, 18%
were Verb Replacement, 18% were Subject
Identification, and 9% were Verb Drop. These
approaches were all a different way of handling a to be
verb but still accurately maintain the message and
intention of the sentence.

Deaf (pp. 158(3), 344-62).
Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language .
(2003). In S. Liddell, A Sketch of the Grammar of ASL (pp. 2-65).
New York, NY: The Press Syndicate of the University of
Cambridge .
Padden, C. (1990). The Relation Between Space and Grammar in
ASL Verb Morphology . In C. Lucas, Sign Language Research:
Theoretical Issues (pp. 118-133). Gallaudet University Press.

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