TerpTopics: ASL CLASSIFIERS: Introduction to ASL and Sign Language Interpreting
 

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CLASSA-WHAT?

Perhaps, by now, some well-meaning person has said something like, "ASL, unlike other languages, has things called classifiers that are hard to understand and harder to know how or when to use."  S/He may have gone on to explain that, "Hearing people don't know about classifiers because there aren't any in spoken languages."  

Well, forget all of that, because none of it is true ... except that ASL does use them.  Looking for proof that linguistic classifiers are used all over the world?  Here ya go:

(Book) Classifiers: A Typology Of Noun Categorization Devices

It's a crying shame that many ASL students have been introduced to classifiers in such an unfortunate and erroneous way.  After such discouragement, it is a wonder that any of us pushes through.  Thankfully, some of us do.

CLASSIFIERS DEMYSTIFIED

Many spoken and signed languages use classifiers.  As a user of English, you use them everyday, but may not have known they're called classifiers.  Think of classifiers as category-words (or category-signs).  An example of a category-word (a classifier) is the word vehicle.  When you think of vehicle, you might think of front loaders, cars, or moving vans.  Then, if it's cars we're talking about, it might be a sedan, a Mazeratti, or a hybrid.  And, so on.  Which ever car it is specifically, it is still a car, which is a vehicle.  The words vehicle and car are classifiers in English.

Tah-dah!

Now you know what a linguistic classifier is, that you and everyone you know have used them for years, and that not one of you has died from it.  Yet.  <wink>

Classifiers in ASL, just like classifiers in English, are handy, simple, wonderful, and fun linguistic tools.  You're going to get this concept in a snap.  After some practice - OK, lots of practice - you'll be almost as comfortable using classifiers in ASL as you are using them in English.  Emphasis is on the world almost because, after all, you're a second-language learner so we don't want to go overboard here.  (smile)

SUPPORT MATERIAL

There's a tough-to-find video that's really helpful.  It's called  Pursuit of ASL: Interesting Facts Using Classifiers.  You might find a few in VHS but you'll be lucky to find the DVD version because it's so popular.  Get a copy, if you can.

 

 


FUNDAMENTALS


DEFINITION

A word or handshape ...
   For example, a 3 handshape ...

used to represent the concept of a noun ...
   the 3 handshape representing a vehicle ...

that has already been identified specifically.
   you established already that you are talking about "Aunt Jo's motorcycle."

 

FORM

... in English

Spoken or written classifier words representing a category of people, places, or things (i.e. animal, airplane, house, statue, vehicle).

... in American Sign Language

Classifier handshapes representing a category of people, places, or things (i.e. animal, airplane, house, statue, vehicle).

Glossed as CL: followed by a standard or modified handshape (coded in English notation), for example, CL:1, CL:V, CL:B, etc.

There are approximately 28 classifier handshapes (depending upon who you ask).

Interpreters are not allowed to simply create new classifier handshapes (even though some try).  Classifier handshapes are fixed and defined within the ASL lexicon.  Sorry, no fudging allowed.

 

STRIP THE LANGUAGE

One of the linguistic shortfalls of coding one language by using the written characters of another is the potential for distortion or loss of original meaning.  The coding of ASL classifiers using written English clearly illustrates this problem.  

The above classifier handshape examples are coded ASL (glossed using English).

CHANGE HOW YOU THINK

This means that, while the coded ASL classifier CL:B may "look like" it's an English letter B, it is not a B; it is a classifier handshape.

STRIP THE LANGUAGE

This is a conceptual difference that is important for interpreters to understand and internalize.

THINK IN CONCEPTS, NOT WORDS

Forget "B" and think "handshape."  

YOU CAN DO THIS!
(Yes.  You can.)


FUNCTION

A classifier:

is efficient (rather than describing a thing in tedious and lengthy detail again and again, an appropriate classifier is used);

streamlines expression and understanding by eliminating the need to reprocess repetitive detail;

is useful in visual languages to quantify or group things, or show characteristics, motion (behavior) and relative placement of one noun to another;

may be used only after the noun it represents has been clearly identified; this is especially necessary when conversing with someone you don't know well;

is useful in visual languages because a it shows; it does not merely tell.  An ASL classifier conveys a lot of information quickly and clearly.

 


EXAMPLES


 

1.  cup

The word cup might mean any number of specific things, but after it is understood what cup we're referring to, we can chat on and on about it by simply using the classifier cup, rather than describing it in cumbersome detail each time we refer to it.

2.  food

Again, we use the classifier food to refer to specific food after we have established which food we're speaking of.

3.  people

After we understand which people we're talking about, we'll simply say the classifier people during our conversation.

4.  soldiers

If we already know that we're speaking of, for example, U.S. military men and women abroad, we can both use the classifier soldiers and will understand one another clearly; however, if one of us begins to speak of soldiers in Florida, we need to identify that particular noun before we can continue to say soldiers and still hope to understand one another.

.

1.  CL:1  1
After we have already established that we're speaking about a friend's former boss, Emily, we can use CL:1 (classifier one handshape) to represent Emily as she struts down the hall and out the door, then tears up the sidewalk, without having to re-identify Emily again and again.

2.  CL:S 
s
We agree that I'm telling you about what happened to my head during a recent roller coaster ride.  Now, I can proceed to use CL:S (classifier S handshape) to convey what happened concerning my poor head.

3.  CL:3 
3
You already know that my right-hand CL:3 (classifier three handshape) is my car, and my left-hand CL:3 is the yellow MX-5 Miata driven by my brother-in-law, Henry.  Now, I can use the CL:3s while I'm thrilling you with the spine-tingling tale.

 


Fun gift for your favorite terp (maybe that's you!).

Believe it or not, you can actually buy a metal street sign that says Terp Drive.
(We could not get over this.)  Click the sign for more information.


 


ASL CLASSIFIER HANDSHAPES

What follows is not an exhaustive list, but a place to start that offers examples of what each classifier handshape might represent or how it might be used ... after the noun it's representing has already been precisely established, of course <grin>.

.

A REMINDER ABOUT CODING

On this page, you are reading English, not ASL.  [Duh.]  We are using written English to express ASL concepts: this is code (aka: gloss).  ASL classifier handshapes represent concepts ... not numbers ... not letters.  When coding, the problem of blurring language, concept and meaning is difficult to avoid, so we conscientiously point it out, and do our best to be clear and precise.  Please try to remember that when you see, for example, CL: 3, this 3 does not mean three-ness because it's really code for "you know, that classifier handshape that looks like a three."  Even though a classifier handshape may "look like" a number or letter, it is not.

.

Appearance Classifier Examples
     

.

CL:1 an upright person
person or streamers twirling
a thin cylindrical object (e.g. pencil)
used to delineate a 2-dimensional shape (square, poster, circle), not 3-dimensional objects.
CL:3 (motorized vehicle) motorcycle; truck; car; front-end-loader ...

.

CL:3 a vehicle, generally motorized (car, snow mobile, tractor)
three people standing or walking together; a group of three

.

CL:4 people lined up single-file
a leak flowing out of something
stripes, bars, fence pickets
long, streaming, flowing, waving, or dangling (hair; bunting)
four people standing or walking together; a group of four
Like a CL:5 (claw), but thumb remains at palm.
.
.
.
CL:4
(claw)
items dotted or peppered about (stars; freckles)
curled, fluffed (hair)
hairs or fur standing on-end

.

CL:5 traffic
many people
many things
paper or leaves in mid-air floating downward
five people standing or walking together; a group of five
As though holding
a softball or
cantaloupe
using one hand
.

.
.
.

CL:5
(claw)
a clump
crowd; herd; village
all-curled-up
rough; jagged
As though making a thumbs-up gesture.

 

..

CL:A
(modified)
inanimate object
statue; vase
house

.

CL:B smooth, flat surface
roadway; runway
book; racecar; artwork displayed on the wall of a gallery
barrier; wall
height of animal
delineate shape of 3-dimensional object (e.g.: house), not 2-dimensional shape.
Move thumb out of the way then fingers bend sharply at the knuckles.
,

.

CL:B
(bent)
height of human

.

CL:C large, long, cylindrically shaped, round, or oval object (column; pillar; sewer-pipe)
thick, cylindrically shaped (bicep; thigh; tree stump)
very thick (encyclopedia; huge stack of paperwork)
deep (snow)
big, toothy smile
Use thumb and index finger.
Remaining fingers are tucked-in
(as S).
.

.

CL:C
(modified)
(newspaper column; article; stripe)
medium-sized, round, flat object (cookie; tea saucer; badge) 

.

CL:F small, thin, round objects (button; coin; 
eye-gaze
long, thin, cylindrically shaped object (stick; dowel; rod)

.

CL:G very short or shallow (small stack papers; shallow water)
thin shapes (mustache; eyebrow; bird beak) 

.

CL:I very thin and long (string; wire; line or stripe)

.

CL:L delineation of object with corners (driver's license; greeting card)
pictures hung on a wall
Curl your index finger.
Your thumb is unchanged.
..

.

CL:L
(modified)
circular or oval-shaped object (dish; rug) 
delineate visible surface (lake; paint-spill)

.

CL:O medium-sized, cylindrically shaped object (rod or tree branch; hose; substantial cable or tube)

.

CL:S solid, spherical object (head)
solid, packed tight, jammed

.

CL:U flat strip-shaped object (ribbon; strip of paper)

.

CL:V two long, thin things, parallel to one another (train track)
two people, upright; side-by-side
eye gaze
As the dominant hand in STEAL.
.

.

CL:V
(claw)
4-legged creature
seated human
crouching, squatting, hunched-down human
people or seats (chairs) arranged side-by-side
people or seats arranged in a circle or semi-circle

.

CL:V
(upside-down)
human standing, walking, climbing
human lying down

.

CL:Y wide object
wide load
hippo's mouth
delineates span, width, breadth (vertical or horizontal extent)

.

CL:Y
(upside-down)
wide object
wide load
hippo's mouth; heavy person whose weight shifts side-to-side
delineates span, width, breadth (vertical or horizontal extent)

.

.

This page was edited: 09/13/2009
This page has been visited Hit Counter times since: May 13, 2009.
TerpTopics is a trademark and service mark of TerpTopics, LLC. © 2009. All rights reserved.

TerpTopics™ is an independent entity; as such does not claim or attempt to claim, represent, or imply by any means whatsoever that it is associated with any other entity that may or may not offer services, goods, or information of interest to interpreter, Deaf, or student communities.  The opinions expressed here those of TerpTopics unless otherwise stated.  Please keep in mind that, while every effort is made to present correct, appropriate, and reasonable information that is based on our experience, anecdotal experiences of others, or developed during the general course of study and professional development, we do not represent TerpTopics as having cornered the market on wisdom (heck, no!) or experience; one reason why links to several other good and reliable resources are made available throughout this site, and we hope that earnest seekers of knowledge will take advantage of them.



 

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Gifts, goodies, and prezzies!  Shop 'til you drop!!  =)

Did someone say
self-indulgence?
YUP!
Click here now!
;)

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Books, books, and MORE books!

So many books;
so little time ...
Why waste it?
Click here now.

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Movies, movies, and MORE movies!!

Discover films of interest to ASL or interpreting students here.

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TerpTopics
recommends

THESE
resources:

GREAT FOR STUDENTS! Shows classifiers used in 35 different topic dicussions.  Get this if you can!

Classifier Predicates In ASL

Perspectives On Classifier Constructions In Sign Languages

Classifiers and Prosody