American Sign Language

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Introduction to American Sign Language

    Linguistic research during the past thirty years has demonstrated that American Sign Language (and indeed any of the world's indigenous sign languages) meets all of the requirements for human languages - it is a rule-governed, grammatical symbol system that changes over time and that members of a community share. Indeed, the linguistic research in this area is so overwhelming that the question of whether signed languages are languages is rarely debated anymore. This page will offer a brief overview of how individual signs are formed and of certain sentence types in American Sign Language.

Individual Sign Formation

    Just as spoken words are formed from "parts" (e.g. vowel sounds and consonant sounds) so are the signs in any sign language. But the "parts" of signs are not sounds. Rather the "parts" of a sign are specific handshapes, movements of the hand, and specific locations of the hand. For example, the Dictionary of American Sign Language (the first such dictionary based on linguistic principles) lists 18-19 handshapes, 24 movements, and 12 locations. You can find illustrations of each these handshapes, movements, and locations in the video and text resources listed below. But, you might wonder how is it that linguists were able to identify these specific handshapes, movements, and locations.

    With spoken languages, you can identify meaningful sound units by finding minimal pairs. These are words that have different meanings and that differ in only one sound. Thus, that one sound must be meaningful and unique because if you change it, you produce a new word. For example, just by changing the first sound of the word hit you produce words such as bit, fit, kit, lit, mit, pit, quit, sit, wit, zit. The same procedure of contrastive analysis has been applied to American Sign Language to identify the meaningful handshapes, movements, and locations.

Father and Mother

For example, look at the drawing (left) and notice that if you change the location of the sign (where in space or on the body the sign is made) that means "father", you produce a sign with a new meaning. The new meaning is "mother."

Father and Grandfather

Likewise if you change the movement of the sign that means "father" from a slight tap to a double movement away from the head, you produce a sign with a new meaning, i.e. "grandfather:"

    This has been a very simplified introduction to this topic. The essential point to remember is that each sign in a signed language is composed of a specific and unique combination of a handshape, a movement, and a location. Changing any one of these aspects of a sign changes the meaning of the sign. There are many fascinating aspects to this this topic. For example, researchers have been able to identify certain handshapes and locations that are used in other sign languages but that are not used in American Sign Languages (just as there are sounds used in other spoken languages that are not used in American English). Researchers have also studied the acquisition of handshapes by Deaf children and have identified acquisition stages from the use of more simple handshapes to more complex ones.


    There are several types of variation in all human languages. For example, in spoken American English words are pronounced differently by people from different parts of the country or by people with different backgrounds (e.g. car, cement, police). Also in spoken American English people may use different words to refer to the same reality (e.g. sub, hero, grinder, hoagie, Italian sandwich). These different types of variation that exist for spoken languages also exist for American Sign Language (and also for other signed languages).

Research has identified the following different types of variation in American Sign Language:

Regional Variation

Different signs used in different parts of the country (e.g. different signs to express meanings such as "Halloween," "birthday," "Christmas," and "candy."

Racial/Ethnic Variation

Different signs used by members of different racial or ethnic groups (e.g. Black Southern signers sign differently than non-Black Southern signers).

Gender Variation

Different signs and different forms of signs used by males and females.

Age Variation

Different signs and different forms of signs used by older signers and by younger signers.

Thus, American Sign Language and other indigenous signed languages have the same type and range of variation that exists in spoken languages.


Basic Sentence Types

    In spoken American English, one way we know that someone has made a statement, asked a question, or given a command is by different intonations of the person's voice. That is, this important grammatical information is not always conveyed by the use of specific words. Likewise, in American Sign Language this type of grammatical information is not always conveyed by the use of specific signs. Rather there are certain non-manual behaviors that are used to indicate statements, questions, commands, and other types of sentences. The videotape and text resources offer material that provides a more detailed discussion of the non-manual grammatical signals. What follows is a brief overview of some of the important sentence types and the specific non-manual behaviors associated with each sentence type.

Declarative Sentences:

    This is perhaps the most basic sentence type in American Sign Language. There does not seem to be any specific non-manual behavior associated with this sentence type. Instead, the absence of any other specific grammatical signal serves to indicate a declarative sentence.


    There are basically two types of questions - Yes/No questions and Wh-word questions. The non-manual signal used to indicate a Yes/No question consists of raised eye brows, slightly widened eyes, and, often, a forward tilt of the head and/or body. Sometimes the shoulders are also raised. This set of non-manual behaviors occurs during production of all of the signs that you want to be part of the question. For example, suppose your friend was talking about a particular movie and you wanted to ask whether your friend had seen the movie. You would use this set of non-manual behaviors while producing the manual signs meaning "FINISH," "SEE," "MOVIE," and "YOU." The meaning of the signed utterance would be the Yes/No question "Have you already seen the movie?"

    If you want to ask a Wh-word question (i.e. who, what, where, when, why, how) you would use a different non-manual signal. The behaviors consist of a brow squint and, frequently, a tilting of the head. Sometimes the body shifts forward and the shoulders are raised. For example, suppose you wanted to ask someone how a mutual friend got to a party (since you know the friend lives rather far away and the friend's car is in the shop). You would use this set of Wh-word non-manual behaviors while producing the manual signs meaning "HOW," "COME-here," "HOW." The meaning of the signed utterance would be the Wh-word question "How did ____ get here".


    This type of sentence requires stress or emphasis on the verb and requires the signer to look directly at the person who is being told to do something. There are two ways of showing stress - one is to produce a sign faster and sharper than normally; the other type of stress is very emphatic and involves making a sign much more slowly and deliberately than normal. For example suppose you wanted to tell someone to stop teasing the cat. You might look directly at the person while producing the manual signs "FINISH," "TEASE," "CAT," "FINISH." You would also stress the sign "FINISH." The meaning of the signed utterance would be the command "Stop teasing the cat! Stop it!"

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