Introducing classifiers in sign language

At first, classifier may sound a bit intimidating for ASL beginners. 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 CL, in sign language is a signed morpheme or term that represents a particular group of objects or referents. It indicates the group to which a noun belongs.

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

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

A classifier is often incorporated into a verb/noun phrase. In some way, it functions like a pronoun in a predicate. Like pronouns, a noun must be signed before its classifier can be used as a referent. A classifier handshape may be incorporated with a movement, palm orientation, and/or location to convey rich information in a predicate.

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.

Classifiers in sign language

For a starter, here are some some common classifier handshapes that represent some classes of nouns or referents.

"1" classifier handshape

classifier 1
CL:1

The classifier of this upright index finger handshape (CL1) may represent a thin and/or tall object or a person, such as a person, a twig, a pole, a pen, a stick, etc.

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

2-claw classifier handshape

ASL classifier 2
CL:2

The 2-claw handshape in its horizontal position (not upright unless the object is upside down) can represent a group of pieces such as an animal, a chair, a toilet, a rocking chair, a sitting person, etc.

"B" classifier handshape

ASL classifier B
CL:B (open thumb)

The classifier handshape with its palm orientation facing down is used to represent such objects as a paper, a table, a bed, etc.

With the upright handshape, it can be referred to a picture, a wall, etc.

Multiple classifiers

A classifier is not limited to handshapes but also it can be integrated with a location, palm orientation, and/or movement to convey more information.

ASL sign for TABLE
ASL sign for TABLE
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.

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.

Exclusive content locked for subscribers. Please log in or sign up if you're not already a paid subscriber.

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

Also see linguistics in sign language.

Browse ASL and Deaf culture topics.