Introducing classifiers in sign language

At first, classifier may sound a bit intimidating for sign language learners. But, I tell my ASL beginners:

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.

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 a 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. The classifier handshape represents the group to which a noun belongs.

In some way, the 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. It is often incorporated with a movement, palm orientation, and/or location to convey rich information in a sentence.

For example, the classifier "horizontal 3-handshape" may represent 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.

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.

The classifier predicate

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.

Classifier usage in sign language

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

Let's look at an example.

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
CL:CAT-under CL: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
CAT-ON-TABLE

Or, "... on the table".

classifier lying down on table
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. :)

Learn and use 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.

Receptive/expressive practice

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

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

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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