2.10 Classifying Signs

We sometimes think that the word phonetics refers exclusively to language sounds, but signed languages like ASL also have phonetics. This unit looks at how signs can be classified according to how they’re produced, the same way we classify consonants and vowels according to how they’re produced.

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In this chapter we’ve talked about how the sounds of spoken languages are organized: we classify consonants according to their place & manner of articulation and their voicing, and we classify vowels according to their tongue position and whether the lips are rounded. That’s a pretty tidy system for the segments of spoken languages, which are produced with the mouth (and the articulators and the larynx and the lungs), and perceived with the ears. We haven’t talked yet about signed languages, which are produced with the hands and arms and (usually) perceived with the eyes. It turns out that, just like consonants and vowels, the signs in signed languages can be classified according to how they’re produced, along five parameters. Before we talk about the signs themselves, let’s talk a bit more about signed languages in general.

It might be that when you hear the phrase “sign language”, you think of American Sign Language, or ASL, which is the signed language used most widely in North America. But ASL is just one of many signed languages in the world. There’s BSL, or British Sign Language, and LSQ, Langue des signes québecoise, Auslan, and many others. These languages are not mutually intelligible — in other words, users of BSL don’t necessarily understand ASL and vice versa. But all sign languages share some properties with each other, and they also share properties with spoken languages, which we’ll examine later in this book.

You should know that not everyone who uses a sign language is deaf — some hearing children acquire sign natively if their parents or other people in their household sign. And many hearing people choose to learn a signed language in addition to their spoken language, the same way people might choose to learn Spanish or Korean. The other piece of the story is that not everyone who’s deaf uses a sign language, because of stigma or because of language deprivation. When the word deaf is spelled with a lower-case ‘d’, it’s the medical term for people who have little or no hearing. The word Deaf with an upper-case ‘D’ is used by people who participate in Deaf culture. Deaf culture includes using signed languages, and usually does not perceive deafness as an impairment.

This idea that deafness is not a defect can be quite radical in our ableist society where disability is often stigmatized. Oralism is the name for the attitude that says that speech is better than sign. Many parents, teachers, and even doctors believe that it’s more important for deaf people to learn to speak than to sign. This stigmatizing attitude toward signed languages means that it’s quite common for children who are born deaf not to have access to any language during those vital first few years of life. The evidence shows that deaf children who are exposed to sign from an early age have better outcomes than deaf children who only have access to speech, relying on hearing aids and cochlear implants.

The stigma towards signed languages is based on faulty assumptions, from attitudes that believe that signed languages aren’t “real” or full languages. But the tools of linguistics reveal that signed languages are just as complex as spoken languages; they have phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. Furthermore, neural imaging has revealed that users of sign languages recruit the same areas of the brain for producing and understanding language as users of spoken languages do.

So since we’ve paid attention to how linguists classify the sounds of spoken languages, let’s look at how the signs of signed languages can be classified. First, I need to point out that when we talk about classifying signs, we’re looking at a different level of representation from speech sounds: individual signs correspond to words, not to segments like consonants or vowels. But like consonants and vowels, each individual sign includes multiple parameters. The five parameters that make up a sign are location, movement, handshape, orientation, and non-manual markers. Each of these parameters can vary independently of the others. Let’s look at them more closely.

Location has to do with where the signer articulates the sign, relative to their body. In ASL, or American Sign Language, almost all signs are articulated above the waist. The two ASL signs for ONION and APPLE differ in their location: the sign for ONION is articulated next to the eyes, while the sign for APPLE is at the mouth.

The movement parameter refers to how the hands and fingers move, and what path they take. Compare the ASL signs for CAN and SHOES. In both signs, the hands are in the same shape and the same location, but their movement differs. In the sign for CAN, the fists move downward parallel to each other, while in the sign for SHOES, the signer brings the two fists together at the edges.

The position of the hands and fingers is called handshape. When I say the position of the hands and fingers, I don’t mean where on the body — that’s location — but how is the signer configuring them. Let’s look back at the sign for APPLE, which is articulated with a knuckle twisting beside the mouth. Now look at the sign for CANDY. Instead of a knuckle, the index finger is pointing at the side of the mouth. The location and movement are the same as for APPLE, but the handshape is different.

The orientation of the hands is also important for ASL signs, that is, the direction that the hands are facing. Compare the two ASL signs for BALANCE and MAYBE. They’re very similar, but the orientation of the hands is different in the two signs.

The final parameter that can differ between signs is non-manual markers, that is, the parts of the body that aren’t the hands. Look here at the sign for LATE, and then look at the sign for NOT YET. What the hands do is pretty similar in these signs, but for NOT YET, the tongue protrudes. If you made the handsign without the tongue movement, you wouldn’t have the sign for NOT YET — the non-manual marker is a crucial part of the sign.

These are just a very few examples from ASL, but they illustrate that signed languages are just as complex and just as systematic as spoken languages. Later in the book, we’ll talk about the morphology and syntax of signed languages too!


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Essentials of Linguistics by Catherine Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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