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2.8: Signed language articulators

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    • Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi
    • eCampusOntario

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    The phonetic units of signed languages

    As discussed in Section 3.1, articulatory phonetics is concerned with how the body produces a linguistic signal, regardless of modality. We do not normally want to describe the overall articulation of an entire word in spoken language, so we break it down into phones for easier discussion. So what is the comparable unit for signed languages?

    In signed languages, the basic independent meaningful unit, the equivalent of a spoken language word, is generally an individual sign. But signs do not seem to have a direct equivalent of phones. Phones are pieces of words that can generally be spoken on their own, completely separate from any other phones. For example, we can take any of the individual phones in the English word [bɛd] ‘bed’, and say each one on their own. It may be awkward, especially for plosives like [b] and [d], but it is not impossible. The independence of phones from words and each other, as well as their ability to be recombined in different ways to create new words, are key properties of spoken languages.

    Now consider the corresponding sign BED in ASL in the following video clip.

    Here we see that the sign is formed by configuring the hand in a particular way (flattened out with an open palm) in a particular location (at the side of the head). These traits are inseparable: if we want to shape the hand in some particular way, we must necessarily do so somewhere, and similarly, if we want to put the hand in some location, we must necessarily also configure the fingers somehow.

    In this way, signs seem more like phones than strings of phones. We cannot make an articulation with the tongue tip and alveolar ridge without also deciding how far apart they are, and we cannot articulate a manner of articulation without choosing an active and passive articulator, and thus, without choosing a place of articulation. That is, individual articulatory properties of phones like place and manner are interdependent, in the same way that the shape of the hand and its location are interdependent. But an entire phone itself and an entire sign itself have independent existence from other phones and signs and can be articulated separately from others.

    So, the two fundamental units of articulation in signed language that we are concerned with are signs (whole independent words) and the individual articulatory properties of a sign (how various articulators are shaped and moved). Contrast this with spoken languages, where we have three units: entire words, individual articulatory properties (place, manner, etc.), and phones (combinations of articulatory properties that are independent subunits of words). Whether or not signed languages have a corresponding third intermediate unit is a matter of debate. Such a unit may indeed exist, or we may simply be trying to hard to impose our understanding of spoken languages onto signed languages. See Section 3.10 for discussion of syllables as a possible kind of intermediate organizational unit that both spoken and signed languages seem to have.

    Notation of signs

    In academic writing, linguistic units from spoken languages are often given in italics, with the gloss (meaning) in single quotes, while signs from signed languages are often given in all capitals or small capitals. So we would write bed when referring to the English word and lit ‘bed’ when referring to the equivalent French word, but we would write BED or BED when referring to the equivalent sign in ASL.

    When writing about ASL using English, it makes sense to use English to write ASL signs, but what should do when writing in English about a signed language like Quebec Sign Language (langue des signes québécoise, abbreviated LSQ) or Turkish Sign Language (Türk İşaret Dili, TİD), which do not have the same connection to English that ASL does?

    One option is to write the sign in English (or whatever language you are writing in). So, just as we would write about the ASL sign BED, we would also write about the LSQ sign BED and the TİD sign BED. Another option is to write the sign by switching to the ambient written language most connected to that signed language, and add a gloss in English. In this case, LSQ has a connection to French and TİD has a connection to Turkish, so while we would write about the ASL sign BED, for the other two signs, we would write about the LSQ sign LIT ‘bed’ and the TİD sign YATAK ‘bed’, using the French word lit and the Turkish word yatak. Both options have advantages and drawbacks, and you will see both used in the linguistics literature, though the first option is perhaps the most common.

    For signed languages, we have two main categories of articulators to analyze the properties of. The manual articulators are the arms, hands, and fingers, which are the primary articulators used for signing. However, most of the rest of the body is also used in signed languages, especially the torso, head, and facial features. All of these other articulators are called the nonmanual articulators or sometimes just nonmanuals.

    Manual articulators

    The manual articulators move by means of joints, which are points in the body where two or more bones come together to allow for some kind of movement. There are six joint types in the manual articulators: shoulder, elbow, radioulnar joint (or simply radioulnar), wrist, base knuckles, and interphalangeal joints (or simply interphalangeal), arranged as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\).

    Skelton arms, with the shoulder, eblow, radioulnar, wrist, base knuckles, and interphalangeals labelled.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Joints in the manual articulators.

    Shoulder articulation

    The shoulder rolls around inside the shoulder blade, allowing for a wide range of motion for the upper arm, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\). The motion we use for jumping jacks, with the arms making up and down arcs out to the left and right of the torso is called abduction (for the upward/outward direction) and adduction (for the downward/inward direction). The motion for raising and lowering the arm up in front of us is flexion (for raising) and extension (for lowering). Finally, the shoulder can keep the upper arm in a fixed position while changing the position of the forearm through rotation. Movement at the shoulder joint can be any combination of these three kinds of movement.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Shoulder movement.

    Elbow articulation

    The elbow is the joint between the upper arm and forearm, and it has a more restricted range of motion than the shoulder, allowing only flexion (bending to bring the forearm closer to the upper arm) and extension (bending the opposite way), as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\). Other kinds of movements at the elbow are heavily restricted or impossible. Note that unlike the shoulder, the elbow cannot typically extend backwards from a hanging position, only from a flexed position.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Elbow movement.

    Radioulnar articulation

    The forearm contains two large bones, the radius (which is on the the thumb side of the arm) and the ulna (on the pinky side). The radius and ulna come together in three different places for three different kinds of movement: at the elbow, at the wrist, and in the middle of the forearm. All three of these points of movement are considered radioulnar joints biologically and have separate names (the superior radioulnar joint at the elbow, the inferior radioulnar joint at the wrist, and the medial radioulnar joint inside the forearm), but in the context of signed language phonetics, we normally only need to talk about one of them, since their movements are all connected. By convention, the one we discuss is the medial radioulnar joint, where the radius and ulna pivot around each other, allowing the forearm to rotate, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Radioulnar movement.

    Wrist articulation

    The wrist is the joint between the forearm and the hand, and it is almost as mobile as the shoulder, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\), allowing for abduction (sideways towards the thumb), adduction (sideways towards the pinky), extension (bending backwards), and flexion (bending forwards), but no rotation. Note that what we might initially think of as rotation at the wrist is actually due to radioulnar articulation. Like the shoulder, the wrist can typically extend backwards from a straightened position.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Wrist movement.

    Base knuckle articulation

    The base knuckles are the joints where the fingers connect to the palm of the hands. Like the wrist, these joints allow for abduction, adduction, extension, and flexion, but no rotation, and like the elbow, the base knuckles cannot typically extend very far backward from a straightened position. The main movements available for the base knuckles are shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\). Each base knuckle can generally move independently of the other, though some movements are more difficult than others.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Base knuckle movement.

    Interphalangeal articulation

    The interphalangeal joints are the various joints between the individual bones within the fingers. The thumb has only one interphalangeal joint, while the other four fingers have two interphalangeal joints each. Most humans cannot easily articulate the two interphalangeal joints of the same finger separately, so they are usually analyzed together for the purpose of describing signed language articulation. Like the elbow, the interphalangeal joints can only extend and flex, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\), and they typically cannot extend backward very much from a straightened position.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Interphalangeal movement.

    Describing manual movement

    An important aspect of describing manual movement in a sign is being able to identify which joints are moving and what kind of movement they are using. This can be quite difficult, because many signed language articulations involve multiple joints moving in different ways. In the following discussion, we explore a few example signs from ASL to determine what kind of movement is occurring.

    Consider the ASL sign SORRY in the following video clip.

    First, note that the hand must raise up to the chest before the sign begins. This movement does not really count as part of the sign. It is similar to how phones are articulated. In order to make an alveolar plosive like [t], the tongue tip must move to make full contact with the alveolar ridge. The initial movement to the alveolar ridge is not part of [t] itself, but it is necessary incidental movement to get ready to articulate [t]. We can tell that this initial movement is not an inherent part of [t] because of the behaviour of words like ant [ænt]. Since the tongue tip is already on the alveolar ridge for [n], we do not need to move it away and then move it back for [t]; we just keep it in place on the alveolar ridge, because that is what is inherent to [t].

    The same is true for the initial positioning movement for SORRY, as well as the final movement to return the hand to its lower starting position. When describing the articulation of a sign, we normally only care about the core movement that happens during the sign itself, not the transitional movements into or out of the sign. Sometimes, it may be difficult to determine whether a given movement is an incidental transitional movement or is instead inherent to the sign, but most of the time, it should be clear what initial and final movements can be ignored.

    Now consider the articulation of the hand. It is shaped into a rigid fist, which requires flexing the base knuckles and the interphalangeal joints (except for the thumb, which is extended). However, this is a fixed configuration, not a movement, so we can ignore those joints when describing movement. The actual movement is the hand tracing a small circle on the chest. There seems to be no significant movement at the wrist or radioulnar joints, since the entire forearm down through the hand and fingers all act as a single fixed unit. Thus, we can also ignore these two joints as well.

    That leaves the elbow and shoulder as our joints of interest for manual movement in SORRY. Looking carefully at the elbow, we see that it flexes and extends slightly during the circle, causing a change in the angle between the upper arm and forearm. In addition, the elbow itself also changes position in space, moving a bit out to the signer’s right side and back again. This cannot be due to elbow movement, since joint movement cannot change the position of a joint itself; if a joint moves through space, it must be because some other joint is moving it. The only joint we have left is the shoulder, so this must be what is responsible for the elbow changing location. The relevant shoulder movement appears to be a small amount of abduction and adduction, perhaps combined with very slight flexion and extension as well.

    So, to describe the movement in the ASL sign SORRY, we would say there is both elbow and shoulder movement, and if we need to be more precise, we would say that there is repeated flexion and extension of the elbow, and repeated abduction and adduction of the shoulder, and perhaps also some amount of repeated flexion and extension of the shoulder.

    Next, consider the ASL sign APPLE in the following video clip.

    Again, we must ignore the transitional movements into and out of the sign, and as with SORRY, we see that the hand in APPLE is in a fixed shape, this time with the index finger extended at the base knuckle but flexed at the interphalangeal joints, while all of the other fingers are closed loosely together with flexed base knuckles and interphalangeal joints. All of these joints stay in their position throughout the sign, so we can ignore them for describing movement.

    Where we do see movement is rotation of the forearm. We know that the wrist cannot rotate, so this must be due to radioulnar rotation. There is no other movement in APPLE, so we can ignore the elbow and shoulder joints.

    Thus, for APPLE in ASL, we would say that it has radioulnar movement only, and more precisely, that it has repeated radioulnar rotation.

    Finally, consider the ASL sign CHOOSE in the following video clip.

    For CHOOSE, the initial transitional movement almost looks like it could be part of the sign, with the hand raising, then flicking backward, as all part of one motion. In this particular case, we will ignore this initial raising, but in general, and it can be difficult to know whether to ignore it or not.

    The core movements that we are concerned with here are the movements of the fingers and the backward wrist flick. For the finger movement, we see that the index and thumb come together in a pinching motion. This requires flexion of the base knuckles to bring the two fingers together, and perhaps a very small amount of interphalangeal flexion as the finger and thumb bend very slightly rather than staying perfectly straight. The backwards wrist flick is articulated by extending the wrist backward. There is no radioulnar twisting and no notable elbow or shoulder movement.

    Thus, for CHOOSE in ASL, we would say that it has base and radioulnar movement, and perhaps some minor interphalangeal movement, and more precisely, that it has non-repeated base (and maybe interphalangeal) flexion and wrist extension.

    Nonmanual articulators

    The rest of the body, the nonmanual articulators, especially the torso and the parts of the face, have complex and varied movement, such as eye gaze changes, eyelid narrowing and opening, eyebrow raising and lowering, torso leaning and rotation, head tilting and rotation, cheek puffing, lip rounding and spreading, teeth baring, etc. Nearly any other body part can be a nonmanual articulator, even the feet and buttocks in some signed languages, such as Adamorobe Sign Language in Ghana (Nyst 2007) and Kata Kolok in Indonesia (Marsaja 2008).

    The ASL sign SORRY has some of these nonmanual articulations. The signer furrows his brow, pushes his lips together, slightly puffs his cheeks, and gives a slow head shake. All of these nonmanual movements are part of the sign. For any given sign, the nonmanual articulations may not all be necessary to understand the sign, but they are still part of its articulation.

    Nonmanual articulation is beyond the scope of an introductory textbook like this, but it plays a crucial role in signed languages and cannot be ignored in a full analysis of signed languages. This is one of the drawbacks for tools like “signed language gloves” that supposedly translate signed language movements into text or speech. These devices regularly appear in popular media; a typical example is presented in Chin 2020. Since these gloves only capture some aspects of manual articulation, but no nonmanual articulation at all, they cannot fully translate signed languages. See Hill 2020 for further discussion of this issue, in particular, the need to directly involve deaf people when designing any kind of signed language technology, to ensure that the technology is actually useful to deaf people.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    Chin, Matthew. 2020. Wearable-tech glove translates sign language into speech in real time. UCLA Newsroom.

    Hill, Joseph. 2020. Do deaf communities actually want sign language gloves? Nature Electronics 3(9): 512–513.

    Marsaja, I. Gede. 2008. Desa Kolok — A deaf village and its sign language in Bali, Indonesia. Nijmegen: Ishara Press.

    Nyst, Victoria. 2007. A descriptive analysis of Adamorobe Sign Language (Ghana). University of Amsterdam PhD dissertation.

    Signed language parameters

    Many of the possible types of manual articulations occur so frequently in certain combinations that we can describe them in more efficient ways. We begin by dividing the various manual articulations into four main categories, often referred to collectively as parameters (also called primes):

    • handshape: how the base knuckles and interphalangeal joints are configured
    • orientation: the direction the hand is facing due to the configuration of the other four joints (wrist, radioulnar, elbow, and shoulder)
    • location: where in space or on the body a sign is articulated
    • movement: how the manual articulators move


    The static configuration of the base knuckles and interphalangeal joints in a sign is called its handshape. A handshape can be identified by which fingers have which of their base knuckles and/or interphalangeal joints flexed and by how much, as well as whether there is any abduction or adduction of the base knuckles. For example, we could describe the handshapes in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) with the given descriptions.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Various handshapes and their detailed descriptions of base knuckle and interphalangeal articulation.

    However, these kinds of prose descriptions are a bit cumbersome, just like constantly writing “voiceless postalveolar fricative” for the phone [ʃ]. When possible, handshapes are often graphically depicted with iconic pictures like those in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\). However, these are not always easily available in certain media, so other solutions may be needed.

    Since many handshapes are used to represent numbers or letters from the writing system of the ambient spoken language, a common solution is to use numbers and letters as convenient shorthand labels, somewhat like the IPA. Thus, since the first handshape in Figure 3.28 is used to represent FIVE in ASL, we could call this handshape the “5 handshape”. Similarly, the second handshape in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) is used to represent the English letter <S> in ASL, so it can be called the “S handshape”.

    However, this system has to be used with caution. The S handshape is used in ASL to represent the English letter <S>, but in Swedish Sign Language (Svenskt teckenspråk, STS), the same handshape represents the Swedish letter <G>. In a discussion in English about STS, the term S handshape could be confusing if it has not been made clear which specific handshape it refers to. This is not an isolated problem. There are many other mismatches between these two languages, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\), and of course, there are similar mismatches across signed languages generally.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Differences between ASL and STS in handshape meanings.

    This issue is further complicated by the fact that writing systems do not all use the same characters. For example, it would not even make sense to talk about an “R handshape” for Russian Sign Language, because there is no letter <R> in the Russian alphabet. There is a Russian letter that represents a rhotic, but that letter is the Cyrillic character <Р>. This letter is represented in Russian Sign Language by the handshape in Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\), which is the handshape used for EIGHT in ASL! So when discussing many different signed languages in the same text, this way of describing handshapes can be confusing.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The handshape for <Р> in Russian Sign Language and EIGHT in ASL.

    However, even just for a single signed language, there are far more handshapes than are used for numbers and letters. For example, ASL makes frequent use of the first two handshapes in Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\), but these are not used to represent any number or English letter, although they are similar to the third handshape in Figure 3.31, which is used to represent the English letter <B>.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Similar handshapes.

    For these situations, certain descriptors (flat, open, bent, closed, etc.) can be used to describe slight differences between similar handshapes, as in the examples from ASL in Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Various descriptions for related handshapes.

    Because of the problems with this notation and terminology, we will use images where necessary, but we will also use the names typically used for describing handshapes in ASL. Just remember that these names are not universal and would not normally be appropriate when describing handshapes in other languages.

    Sometimes, a distinction is made between two types of handshapes. Some of these are called unmarked handshapes (Battison 1978), which tend to be the most common handshapes, both across signed languages and within a single language, as well as the earliest ones acquired by children. They are typically the easiest handshapes to both articulate and visually distinguish from each other. They are also often used as default or substitute handshapes in certain circumstances. More recent work argues that the set of unmarked handshapes is probably smaller than previously thought, perhaps containing only the four in Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\) (Henner et al. 2013),

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Unmarked handshapes.

    Marked handshapes are all other possible configurations of the fingers. These are not universal, so a particular marked handshape may be used in some languages but not in others, and when it is used, it may be common in some languages and rare in others.


    The other four joints (wrist, radioulnar, elbow, and shoulder) can be used to change the orientation of the hand, so that it can face different directions while maintaining the same handshape. For example, the diagrams in Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\) show four different orientations of the flat-B handshape for the right hand as seen by the signer.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Different orientations of the right hand as seen from the signer’s point of view.

    The orientation of the hand is divided into two components: the palm orientation (which way the palm is facing, shown in blue in Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\)) and the finger orientation (the direction the bones inside the hand are pointing, which is where the fingers would point when straightened, shown in orange in Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\)). Note that if the fingers are bent, the finger orientation may be a bit confusing, but you can determine orientation by straightening out the fingers to see where the fingertips point. Remember that handshape depends only on the base knuckles and interphalangeals, while orientation depends only on the other four joints. Bending at the base knuckles can only change handshape, not orientation.

    The orientation of either the palm or the fingers may be described in absolute terms (up, down), or relative to the signer’s position (in, out, left, right) or to a particular body part (face, other hand, etc.).

    Compare the ASL signs in the following video clips, first YOUR, then THANK-YOU, and finally BED. All three of these signs use the same open-B handshape, but they have different orientations. For YOUR, the palm is oriented out from the signer, and the fingers are oriented up.

    For THANK-YOU, the palm is oriented in towards to the signer, and the fingers are oriented diagonally up and to the signer’s left.

    And for BED, the palm is oriented in towards the signer’s left cheek, and the fingers are oriented up along the side of the signer’s face:

    Since the head is tilted in BED, the absolute orientation of the palm and fingers in overall space is diagonal, but in signs like this, what matters is the relative orientation with respect to a specific body part, since the absolute orientation would depend on just how much the head is tilted.


    The location of a sign is where in space or on the body it is articulated. Signs can be articulated in a variety of locations. The default location is neutral signing space, the area just in front of the signer’s torso (as in ASL YOUR), but locations can be nearly anywhere on the body. They tend to be around some specific part of the head (like the chin in ASL THANK-YOU or the side of the face in ASL BED), but other body parts are also possible locations. For example, the chest is the location for the ASL sign MY in the following video clip.

    The side of the forehead is the location for the ASL sign KNOW in the following video clip.

    And the left hand is used as the location for the ASL sign WARN in the following video clip.

    It is very rare for signs to have a location below the waist or behind the body, but these are still possible locations in some signed languages (Nyst 2012).


    All signs have a handshape, an orientation, and a location, and many signs also have movement, which is divided into two types: path and local movement. Path movement involves articulation at the elbow and/or shoulder, as in THANK-YOU, which starts off on the chin but moves outward along a path into neutral signing space by extending the elbow. Local movement involves articulation at the radioulnar joint, wrist, base knuckles, and/or interphalangeal joints, as in WARN, in which the signer’s right hand taps the back of the left hand twice by flexing and extending the wrist.

    For one-handed signs, like most of those shown in this chapter so far, signers typically use their dominant hand, which is the hand used more than the other for many ordinary daily activities like writing and brushing teeth. The signer in these videos uses his right hand. The other hand is called the nondominant hand. In two-handed signs, both the dominant and nondominant hands are used. They may be used equally (for example, both moving at the same time in the same way), but in many two-handed signs, like ASL WARN, only the dominant hand moves, while the nondominant hand remains still, usually acting as the location for the sign.

    Note that the base knuckles and interphalangeal joints are used for handshape, so any movement at those joints can also change the handshape of a sign. Similarly, any movement of the other four joints can change the sign’s orientation or location. Thus, movement is intertwined with the other three parameters, so it can sometimes be difficult to single out how to analyze a given movement.

    For example, in ASL THANK-YOU, there is outward movement due to elbow extension as well as a change in location from the chin to neutral signing space. Normally, we describe this by giving the starting location as the actual location, and describe the ending location as part of the movement. Thus, we would say that the location of THANK-YOU is the chin, and that it has an outward path movement to neutral signing space.

    Minimal pairs

    Signs which differ in just one parameter are called minimal pairs,. An example of a minimal pair in ASL is SORRY and PLEASE, as shown in the video clips below. Note for each how they have roughly the same orientation, location, and movement, but different handshapes. In SORRY, the open-A handshape is used.

    But in PLEASE, the open-B handshape is used, as seen in this linked description and video from the online Handspeak ASL dictionary (Lapiak 1995–2022).

    Similarly, minimal pairs also exist for differences in orientation only, such as PROOF versus STOP in ASL, as shown in the following video clips. Note that there is also a slight difference in movement due to the dominant hand bouncing back in PROOF, but otherwise, the two signs have the same handshape, the same location, and mostly the same movement. In PROOF, the dominant hand is oriented with the palm facing up.

    But in STOP, the dominant palm is facing to the signer’s left.

    Location can also be a distinguishing factor in minimal pairs, such as with APPLE versus ONION in ASL, as shown in the following video clips. These two signs have the same handshape, the same orientation, and the same movement, but they are articulated at different locations. APPLE is articulated on the cheek.

    In comparison, ONION is articulated on the side of the head near the eye.

    Finally, minimal pairs also exist for movement, such as with THINK versus WONDER in ASL, as shown in the following video clips. These two signs have the same handshape, the same orientation, and the same location, but they differ in how the hand moves. For THINK, the hand moves inward toward the head.

    But in WONDER, the hand instead traces a circle near the head.

    We will see in Chapter 4 that the concept of minimal pair can be extended to spoken languages, too.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    Battison, Robbin. 1978. Lexical borrowing in American Sign Language. Silver Spring, MD: Linstok Press.

    Henner, Jonathan, Leah Geer, and Diane Lillo-Martin. 2013. Calculating frequency of occurrence of ASL handshapes. LSA Annual Meeting Extended Abstracts 4(16): 1–4.

    Lapiak, Jolanta. 1995–2022. Handspeak.

    Nyst, Victoria. 2012. Shared sign languages. In Sign language: An international handbook, ed. Roland Pfau, Markus Steinbach, and Bencie Woll, 552–574. De Gruyter Mouton.

    There is no commonly accepted equivalent of the IPA for transcribing signs. The most historically significant notation system for signs was developed by William Stokoe (pronounced [stoki]), whose work (1960, 1965) is also notable for having demonstrated that signed languages have the same kinds of linguistic structures that spoken languages do, effectively kickstarting the entire field of signed language linguistics.

    Stokoe’s system of symbols, popularly called Stokoe notation, divides signs based on the four parameters discussed in Section 3.8, though he originally considered orientation to be a subcomponent of the handshape parameter. Battison (1978) argued that orientation should be its own distinct parameter, and this has become the standard analysis of the internal structure of signs, with nonmanual articulations sometimes considered a fifth parameter.

    The Stokoe notation for a basic one-handed sign has the structure LHOM where L is the symbol for the location, H is the symbol for the handshape, O is a subscripted symbol for the orientation, and M is a superscripted symbol for the movement. Various other marks and symbols can be used to indicate more complex signs (two-handed, changing handshapes, compounds, etc.). A partial list of Stokoe’s original symbols is given in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Sample symbols from Stoke notation.

    For example, the ASL sign THANK-YOU could be notated as in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\), with the initial curved shape indicating the chin as the location, Ḃ indicating the B handshape with the thumb extended, the downward tick mark ⫟ indicating a palm orientation toward the signer, and an upward tick mark ⫠ indicated movement away from the signer.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): One possible use of Stokoe notation for ASL THANK-YOU.

    Stokoe notation was designed for ASL, so it is not suited for signed languages generally, but the concept of analyzing signs into distinct parameters that underlies this system has influenced all remotely successful subsequent notation systems, such as SignWriting (Sutton 1981, 1990) and Hamburg Notation System (HamNoSys) (Prillwitz and Schulmeister 1987, Prillwitz et al. 1987, 1989). These two systems have more iconic symbols than Stokoe notation (making them somewhat easier to understand), and they have no inherent ties to ASL (making them more universally applicable).

    For example, the SignWriting and HamNoSys symbols in Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) both represent the same handshape, also shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\):Notation from SignWriting (left) and HamNoSys (centre) for the U handshape (right).

    Note how both the SignWriting and HamNoSys symbols iconically represent the extension of the middle and index fingers, as lines pointing out from the closed fist (represented as a square in SignWriting and an oval in HamNoSys). HamNoSys also shows the extra detail of the thumb crossing over the palm, while SignWriting shows the difference in length between the middle and index fingers.

    This handshape is used to represent the English letter <U> in ASL, so it is notated by U in Stokoe notation. This relationship between letter and handshape would not transfer to other signed languages, such as Jordanian Sign Language, in which the same handshape is used for the Arabic letter <ت> (Hendriks 2008), which represents the phone [t]. This phone has no relationship to the English letter <U>, so the more iconic SignWriting or HamNoSys symbols would be more meaningful notation than Stokoe notation for representing this handshape when describing languages like Jordanian Sign Language.

    Other notation systems for signed languages have been constructed (see Hochgesang 2014 for an overview), but no single consistent standard has emerged, and the systems that do exist can be difficult to work with. For example, they typically require special symbols not available in most fonts, so many people wanting to describe signed languages may not have access to the relevant symbols, and documents describing signed languages may not be reliably readable on different computers. This lack of a consistent standard notation makes the study of signed language phonetics and phonology more difficult.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    Battison, Robbin. 1978. Lexical borrowing in American Sign Language. Silver Spring, MD: Linstok Press.

    Hendriks, Bernadet. 2008. Jordanian Sign Language: Aspects of grammar from a cross-linguistic perspective. Doctoral dissertation, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam

    Hochgesang, Julie A. 2014. Using design principles to consider representation of the hand in some notation systems. Sign Language Studies 14(4): 488–542.

    Prillwitz, Sigmund, Regina Leven, Heiko Zienert, Thomas Hanke, and Jan Henning. 1987. HamNoSys: Hamburg Notation System for sign languages: An introduction. Hamburg: Zentrum für Deutsche Gebärdensprache.

    Prillwitz, Sigmund, Regina Leven, Heiko Zienert, Thomas Hanke, and Jan Henning. 1989. HamNoSys version 2.0: Hamburg Notation System for sign languages: An introductory guide, International Studies on Sign Language and Communication of the Deaf, vol. 5. Hamburg: Signum.

    Prillwitz, Sigmund and Rolf Schulmeister. 1987. Entwicklung eines computergesteuerten Gebärdenlexikons mit bewegten Bildern. Das Zeichen 1(1): 52–57.

    Stokoe, William C. 1960. Sign language structure: An outline of the visual communication systems of the American Deaf. No 8 in Studies in Linguistics, Occasional Papers. Buffalo, NY: University of Buffalo.

    Stokoe, William C., Dorothy C. Casterline, and Carl G. Croneberg. 1965. A dictionary of American Sign Language on linguistic principles. Silver Spring, MD: Linstok Press.

    Sutton, Valerie. 1981. Sign Writing for everyday use. Boston: Sutton Movement Writing Press.

    Sutton, Valerie. 1990. Lessons in SignWriting. La Jolla, CA: SignWriting Press.

    This page titled 2.8: Signed language articulators is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi (eCampusOntario) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.