Level: Beginner I

Introducing classifiers in sign language

At first, classifiers in sign language may sound a bit intimidating for sign language learners. When I introduced a first basic lesson on ASL classifiers to my ASL beginners somewhere in the middle of the first semester, I asked them if they found it interesting and fun? They groaned. A few ones nodded. Then, I tell my ASL students in ASL (roughly translated as):

1) It's really fun and 2) If you understand how classifiers work and use them in your arsenal of signing skills, your signing skills would improve by leaps and bounds.

By the concept of "by leaps and bounds", my students perked up. Toward the end of the semester through some fun activities, my students picked up some classifiers in their signing.

There is no sign language without classifiers. Impossible without them in storytelling. Without using classifiers, your signing skills would remain far below mediocre. So, roll up your sleeves and get ready.

What is ASL classifier?

classifiers in sign language
Image by Jolanta Lapiak

A classifier, abbreviated as CL, in sign language is a signed morpheme (particularly, a classifier handshape) that represents a group of nouns or referents.

In some way, a classifier handshape functions like a pronoun in a clause. Like pronouns, a noun must be signed before its classifier can be used as a referent. But, it goes beyond its pronoun-like function. In classifier predicate, it is often incorporated with a verb phrase and/or a noun phrase. It can be inflected to convey rich information in a sentence.

Classifier is not exclusive to sign language. It is also found in spoken languages that have some grammatical means for the nominal classification systems of noun referents. Though, their properties of classifier system are different from signed languages.

Classifier handshapes

A classifier handshape represents a group to which a noun belongs.

For example, the classifier "horizontal 3-handshape" generally represents an object in the group of vehicles such as car, truck, bicycle, motorcycle, submarine, etc.

classifier 3 for vehicle
Classifier: horizontal CL3 for a class of some vehicles.

Another example of a common classifier usage is the classifier handshape "1" which represents a person, a pole, a pencil, or anything that is long and thin.

Classifier predicates

In a sentence, there are two parts: the subject and the predicate. A subject consists of the noun phrase and a predicate consists of the verb clause. A classifier handshape is often incorporated into a verb/noun phrase or a predicate clause.

In addition, the movement, location, and speed incorporated with the classifier predicate can convey more information. Often, signers can combine classifiers as well.

Classifier constructions

Sign language is amazingly rich. Because, not only ASL classifier can represent a class of nouns or referents, but it also can be integrated into some parameters such as location, palm orientation, and/or movement to convey more information.

Let's look at an example -- a cat on the table.

ASL sign for TABLE
ASL sign for TABLE

Again, remember that a noun is first signed before its classifier can be used to represent its referent in a phrase or sentence.

Classifier for TABLE
Classifier for TABLE

The signer begins with the ASL word table and then assigns it a pronominal classifier (palm faced down) for the table. Notice that the signer uses the passive (non-dominant) hand for the classifier because she uses her dominant hand for the next noun CAT.

ASL sign for CAT

The signer then utters the one-handed ASL noun cat and immediately assigns it a classifier (CL:2claw). Notice that the signer still holds the passive-handed classifier for the table.

classifier below table

The claw-2 classifier represents the cat. Now, putting all the nouns and classifers together translates into "The cat is below the table." Or, "The cat is sitting below the table."

classifier on table

Or, "... on the table".

classifier lying down on table

Or, "... lying down on the table".

The signer has changed the palm orientation of the classifier to represent a lying-down cat.

If she lowers her eyelids at the same time signing "lying down", it means the "the cat is relaxing on the table." If the eyes are closed while signing CL:LYING-down, it indicates that the cat is sleeping. :)

Receptive/expressive practice

Learn some more examples of how classifier phrases are used in the following videos.

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Types of classifiers

ASL classifiers can be categorized into classes of classifiers, such as body classifier (BCL), body part classifier (BPCL), element classifier (ECL), descriptive classifier (DCL), instrument classifier (ICL), semantic classifier (SCL). See related links.

As a beginner, you don't need to know or identify them all other than the basic use of classifiers. In ASL level 200, the students may learn to classify or identify them as they learn to manipulate classifiers more.


Classifier predicates in ASL are all-time used. Learning and understanding classifiers can significantly improve your expressive language skills.

Learn and use ASL classifiers in sentences as much as you can. The more you understand and comfortably use them, the more you enjoy this language. It also can significantly improve your expressive skills. Sign language is vibrant and rich with classifiers.

Related posts

Learn more what classifier handshapes classifier handshapes can be used.

Also see depicting verbs.

Identify different classes of classifiers.

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