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Spatial Agreement

In studying American Sign Language, the terms "spatial agreement", "signer's perspective", and "the reality principle" get thrown around a lot. These three closely related terms all simply refer to signing about and pointing at places and other physical objects as they are in real life. In other words, if you are describing in ASL where the bathroom is, you need to point towards the direction where the bathroom actually is located, not the opposite direction. This is generally what is meant by the reality principle. You use what's known as the "signing space", or the area in front of your body where signs are signed, to show as clearly as possible where objects are in relation to each other so that the addressee can find his or her way from your visual description. Eye gaze, meaning which way you are looking, and head tilt are also used in addition to pointing to describe directions. For example, to show a right turn, while pointing to the right, you would tilt your head to the left as if you were looking around the corner to the right.

In addition, spatial agreement can also show how far away something is. If something is very far away, this can be shown when pointing at it by arcing the motion of your hand with your index finger extended, moving forward in a slow motion and shaking your hand back and forth while arcing forward. At the same time, the head is tilted slightly back and the eyes are squinted as if looking at the farway object. Conversely, if an object is very near, this is shown in ASL by pointing at it as if it were so close that you have to retract your pointing arm into a chicken wing position, bending your elbow and wrist, pointing down and forward at an angle. While pointing like this, a non-manual or naturally occurring behavior that also denotes close proximity and that is called cheek-to-shoulder can be used in which you raise the shoulder of your pointing arm and bring your cheek near your raised shoulder while clinching your teeth.

This use of spatial agreement can also be used to show reference to time. If an event will happen in the far distant future, the same modification in signing used to point at faraway objects can be used to show the chronilogical distance. For example, the sign for "will" can be signed slowly and with a bouncing motion as the hand arcs forward and the head is titled slightly back with the eyes squinted. This sign can be interpreted into English as "eventually" or "someday". Similarly, if an event just barely happened in the very recent past, cheek-to-shoulder behavior can be used with the sign "recent" to show something just barely happened.

The term signer's perspective means that spatial relationships are always signed in ASL from the perspective of the signer, not adjusted for the perspective of the addressee. For example, when signing about a map, you would point to different points on the map as if the map was in front of you; you would not try to flip it around so as to be facing the addressee. Similarly, in relation to the reality principle, if you are describing a room, you would sign it from your perspective as if you were entering the door of the room with the room on the other side of the door from you. You would not try rotate the room in the signing space in front of you to move the door in front of the addressee.


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