Use of classifiers in technical discourse

David Bar-Tzur

Created 24 May 1999, links updated monthly with the help of LinkAlarm.

Classifiers were so named because they divide various objects and shapes into classes or groups. Much research needs to be done on classifiers, one of the most complex aspects of ASL. Valli and Lucas in their book Linguistics of ASL stress that classifiers are verbs that predicate something about an object, which, I would add, is why a classifier must be proceeded by a sign or a fingerspelled word, since verbs require a subject. Lidell and Johnson at Gallaudet University identify two basic parts to classifiers: the movement root and the handshape.

Movement roots

(1) The first movement root is the stative descriptive. The handshape moves in this group to show the outline of a surface, rather than to show the movement of the object itself:

(Explanation of glossing system)

glossed example of stative descriptive

Translation: "The surface is coated with a thick layer of silicon."

(2) Next is the process movement root, where the relative movement of an object is implied:

glossed example of process movement root

Translation: "Have you heard the news? The challenger was climbing upwards after takeoff and suddenly exploded without warning. It was awful!"

(3) Finally there is the contact root, which describes the placement of objects in relationship to one another:

glossed example of contact root

Translation: "Sodium Chloride crystallizes into perfect cubes."

Classifier handshapes

(1) Whole entity morphemes refer to an object as a whole, such as a car (3-CL), an animal (V:-CL), or a person standing (V-CL). (2) Surface morphemes show the outline or boundaries of objects like a wire [(2h)I-CL], the shape of a function of two variables [(L,1outline)-CL], or a function of three variables [(2h)B-CL]. (3) Instrumental morphemes represent specifically hand-held objects like a test tube (open F-CL), a microscope [(S,G)-CL], or a telescope [(2h)S-CL]. (4) Depth and width morphemes can be used for things like a tube, [(2h)F-CL], a solenoid [(2h)I-CL], or a pipe [(2h)C-CL]. (5) Extent morphemes represent amounts or volumes like a pile of papers [(2h)B-CL], the disappearance of liquid in a container [(C,B>O^)-CL], or the saturation of a capacitor [(B,5wg)-CL]. (6) Perimeter-shape morphemes refer to objects that are flat with edges like a computer chip [(2h)G>bO-CL], a lens (1outline-CL), or a polygon [(2h)1outline-CL'draw trapezoid']. (7) On-surface morphemes show large groups of people, animals, or objects that are placed or move on a surface like an audience [(2h)5:-CL], a moving herd of animals [(2h)5wg-CL], or the progress of a forest fire [(2h)5wg-CL].

Classifier rules

The topic (focus) should be identified first, then a movement root and handshape type should be combined. Note that not all handshape types are compatible with the three movement roots. Since many classifiers are one-handed, it is possible to show the relative placement or motion of two objects at the same time. Whole entity morphemes can not touch one another.

There are various kinds of grammatical agreement with classifiers. Eye gaze needs to agree with the placement or movement of classifiers. If the topic is plural, the handshape may need to agree in number and show plurality. Non-manual inflection adds a great deal of information and should agree with the kind of classifier used. The choice of classifier depends on the signer's distance from the object, attitude towards the object, and focus decided on. Let's briefly identify some of the non-manuals that research has identified.

Manual inflections: order and randomness Two standard types of manual inflections for classifiers show randomness and orderliness. Randomness is show by the (2h)alt.X-CL, where both hands have the same handshape (here represented by X) and are placed randomly in different parts of the signing space. For example, (2h)alt.A-CL could show the random placement of molecules and atoms. Other permissible handshapes would be [B], [bC], [C], [F], [ILY], [IRY], [L], [R], [V:], [1], [3], [5:]. We shall discuss how these handshapes could be used to represent specific technical concepts under the entries for the various handshapes themselves, but for all examples of this inflection, randomness is the underlying concept.

For orderliness, "in a row" or "in rows" is generated by using the appropriate CL and placing the hands together, then moving the DH > DS in little hops. Once one row is completed (if there are several) this movement is repeated a little lower, once for each row. Use "in rows" when inter-object distances are sizable in comparison to row or column distances, and "sweep in rows" for speed or when inter-object distances are small in comparison to row or column distances. "sweep in rows" is usually accompanied by puffed cheeks since there are more objects represented by it than "in rows". The possible handshapes for this inflection are the same as for (2h)alt.X-CL above.

Non-manual inflections

Certain non-manual modulations can add to or agree with information contained in the CL itself:
brrr - lips are vibrated by escaping air to show the operation of a motor;
cha - (mouth this word to rhyme with Pa), an adjective for a dimension that is sizable for its kind (for classifiers that show size but not shape);
eye squint - a non-manual signal that must be made in agreement with clenched teeth, intense, pow, or pursed lips, to show roughness, intensity, excessive or inadequate illumination, suddenness, or flow;
intense - (eyes squint, teeth are clenched, shoulders hunch), an adjective for extraordinary magnitude or abundance, usually considered too much;
mm - (lips are puckered, eyebrows lifted slightly) an adverb for regular, casual, unremarkable action;
pow - (mouth the word, with slightly squinted eyes), an adverb to show something happened in an intense instant;
puffed cheeks - an adjective for relative thickness, abundance, or magnitude (for classifiers that show size and shape);
pursed lips - (lips are puckered and air is sucked in), an adjective or adverb for relative thinness, paucity, smoothness, or ease of execution (for classifiers that show size and shape); if air is blown out, can show flow of gases;
sma - (word is mouthed like "small" without the final "ll"), an adjective for a dimension that is sizable for its kind (for classifiers that show size but not shape);
th - an adverb for careless, random, or unthinking action;
tight lips - an adverb to emphasize veracity of assertion;
zz (clenched teeth) - shows roughness.

List of handshapes


[PO > DS] Shows behavior or state of being of one discrete object, such as a block on an inclined plane (use NDH Bforearm-CL for plane) or a block oscillating on the end of a spring (use NDH B-CL, PO > DS to represent wall that spring is attached to).


[PO up] A flat object: a piece of paper, face up.
[PO down] A flat object. A piece of paper, face down. Describes a smooth planar surface, with pursed lips and eye squint. (Use 5-CL for rough surfaces.) Also, for the behavior of a transverse wave, such as crests and troughs in water or light waves.


[PO down] The whole forearm represents a stationary object.


[FOs show whether plane that is so bounded is horizontal or vertical] Shows enclosing walls of a given area. Movements may be like ROOM or like ORDER(n) or sweep freely to show a cylindrical boundary.
[PO down] A rolling, smooth planar surface, with pursed lips and eye squint.


[POs down, hand(s) sweep(s) to show surface] Smooth planar surface, for greater speed or to stress symmetry. Compare two transverse waves, such as in constructive and destructive interference, coherency, and phase relations.


[Hands cross at wrists] Shows movement of animal's wings from up close.


[POs ><, FOs up] Show smooth, continuous (large) surface, with pursed lips and eye squint.

bC-CL (L:-CL)

[PO > NDS] Medium-sized disk. For diameters up to the separation attainable by these fingers. Combine with 1-CL to show concavity of functions, radius or diameter of thin, cylindrical object.

(2h)bC-CL {(2h)L:-CL}

[POs ><] Large disk or hole, concentric circles (concentric waves), medium to large-sized, hollow vertical cylindrical solid: pillar, parentheses in equations, and factoring. "Squared off": brackets. Placement, translation, and rotation of circles or ellipses. Show relative placement of Venn diagram circles or ellipses to illustrate unions, disjunctions, and subsets.
[POs away, hand(s) sweep horizontally] Medium to large-sized, hollow horizontal cylindrical solid: pipe.
[POs away, hands sweep upwards] Hollow cylindrical pillar or pipe.


[PO > NDS] Cylindrical object, such as a glass.
[NDH, PO > DS] Combine with 1-CL to show inner cylindrical surface, such as concavity and convexity of lenses, radius or diameter of cylindrical object.


[Modulations of GROUP] Groupings as in subsets, or "A is contained in B". Distance of hands from on another shows size of group.
[POs away] Horizontal cylindrical solid: pipe.
[POs ><, movement shows placement] Short cylinder or deep hole.
[POs ><, hands sweep upwards] Vertical cylindrical solid: pillar.
[POs ><, hands move as a group] Show group movement.


[PO > NDS] Small disk or hole. (Hole in handshape can be decreased by curling index finger to make it smaller or the FTs can be separated slightly to make them a bit larger.)


[POs away, hand(s) sweep(s) horizontally] Small horizontal tube or pipe, ear canal, intestine, large fiber, or umbilical cord.
[POs ><, DH hand sweeps upwards, NDH hands is static or sweeps downwards] Small vertical tube or pipe, trachea, bronchial tubes. [Handshapes held at eyes] Shows eye gaze behavior, where head does not move with eyes.


[PO away, hand sweeps horizontally or vertically] Layer, stratum, row or column of a matrix or table, coating (done along surface of forearm).


[POs away, hand(s) sweep(s) horizontally or vertically] Same as above, but preferable to use this classifier for plurals.


[PO towards] Represents a flat narrow object, usually incorporated into a verb.

H dot:-CL

[bC with curled middle finger added; PO shows placemen flat surface] Medium-sized disk, slightly thicker than bC-CL. For diameters up to the separation attainable by these fingers.

(2h)H dot:-CL

[bC with curled middle finger added; POs ><, hands sweep upwards] Medium-sized disk, slightly thicker than bC-CL. Separation of hands shows diameter of object.


[POs towards, hands separate or NDH remains static] Show the shape of a wire, rope, spring, coil (solenoid), or boundary.


[PO shows bottom of plane] Shows placement and movement of plane.


[PO shows bottom of shuttle] Shows placement and movement of space shuttle or similar vehicle.


[NDH, PO away] 2D Cartesian spatialization: axes, quadrants, axis planes, intercepts, rotation of axis (for simplicity of calculation), and origin; for angles, modulate for actual angle. See (2h)1-CL for angles over 90.


[POs away] Show placement or movement of rectangular shape: translation and rotation.


[PO show the direction of illumination] Direction of illumination, strobe rate (show by rapidity of successive closings), intensity (by degree of open or closed handshape with wide or narrow eyes), projection onto an axis.


[POs ><, FT touch] To show the rise and fall of a wave whose outer boundaries (nodes) do not move.


[FO shows direction of motion] Shows movement of rocket.


[Thumbs and index fingers of both hands touch, move to their respective sides, and close as if describing a rectangle, POs depend on the planar surface of the object] Small rectangular shape, such as computer chip.


[PO shows where head faces] Shows movement of head.


[PO starts towards receptor of signal, then snaps downwards when handshape changes to [1]. FO toward the receiving end of the transmission, use the 1-CL as the receiving end if no other CL involved] Transmission of electric signal or nerve impulses.


[FO toward the receiving end of the transmission, use the 1-CL as the receiving end if no other CL involved] Pulse.


[FO shows sight line of eyes] Eye gaze behavior, where head moves with eyes. Transparency (V-CL penetrates 5-CL'PO towards'), translucency (V-CL arrives at 5-CL + VAGUE), or opacity (V-CL arrives at B-CL and can't penetrate).
[FO shows direction of legs] Shows placement of person.


[FO shows direction of legs] Shows movement of person's legs.


[PO away or towards] Shows placement of animal, seated person, or chair.


[PO down] Show movement of two- or four-legged animals.


[PO down] Show movement of four-legged animals.


[PO and FT show orientation of the hook] Hook.


[FO up] Show the placement or movement of a standing person. [2], [3], [4], and [5] can similarly be used, even in combination, used to show the movement of a specific number of people. (2h)4-CL or (2h)5-CL are used for an indeterminate number of people.
[PO down, FO away] Tracing linear movement, tracing a connected shape, adding vectors tip to tip (FT touches base of index finger), representing Greek letters or other orthography by tracing the shape (unless the line is not continuous), transverse waves shapes (sinusoidal, triangular, square), light ray behavior.
[FO down] Used to outline shapes that are in a horizontal plane, such as a table top.
[Combined with a B-CL to show boundary of medium or barrier, PO follows the sense of movement] Reflection, refraction, diffraction (1-CL becomes 5^-CL).
[PO > opposite side, FO away] Represents the placement or movement of a thin, extended object.


[FO up, curls once with downward movement of head] Shows passivity of person.


[PO down] Wiggling movement as in the flagella of paramecium. Show progressive invasion of a long, thin object, such as the penetration of sperm into the vaginal canal (C-CL).
[FO up] Shows movement of person.


[FOs up] Tines on a tuning fork.
[FOs away] Shows rectangular or polygonal outlines.


[Fingers cross at knuckles] Show movement of animal's wings from a distance.


[thumb up] To show the placement or motion of land and water vehicles. Combine with the 5-CL to show movement with respect to the ground.


[thumb up] To show the collision of land and water vehicles.

An invented, rather than an ASL CL!
[NDH, PO > DS] 3D Cartesian spatialization: axes, quadrants, axis planes, intercepts, rotation of axis (for simplicity of calculation), and the origin.


[The pinky side of the hand moves in the direction of flow, plus puffed cheeks] For the flow of a liquid from a source such as water from a faucet: the NDH assumes the shape of the conduit, and the DH repeatedly moving in a straight line show the repeated flow of the liquid.


[The pinky side of the hand moves in the direction of flow, plus eye squint and pursed lips (air blown out)] For the flow of a gas from a source, such as a spigot: the NDH assumes the shape of the conduit, and the DH moving in a wavy line show the flow of the gas.


[The POs depends on direction of flow: NDHPO up, DHPO down for rightward flow; NDHPO down, DHPO up for leftward flow; or POs >< for upward or downward flow. Plus puffed cheeks] For the unidirectional flow of electrons, liquids, or movement of conveyor belt: both hands move together repeatedly in a straight line.
[POs down, hands move in direction of FTs] Shows orderly movement of animals.
[POs towards, FOs ><] Shows the outline of a fence.


[POs away or towards] Hands separate to show a linear grouping of animals or seated people.
[POs down, hands move in direction of FTs or opposite them] Large group of seated people or four-legged animals. Animals may be moving.


[POs away, FOs up] Shows passivity or boredom of audience.
[POs face the opposite side, with DH closer to signer] Shows boredom of people waiting in line.


[The PO depends on direction of flow: NDHPO up, DHPO down for rightward flow; NDHPO down, DHPO up for leftward flow; or POs >< for upward or downward flow. Plus puffed cheeks for liquids or eye squint and pursed lips (air blown out) for gases] For the flow of any liquid that is constantly changing direction: both hands move together in a wavy line.


[DHPO down] Describes a rough, planar surface. (Use B-CL for a smooth one.)
[NDHPO down] For the movement of the ground or "absolute space" under a semantic classifier. For example, a vehicle can be shown to be in motion by holding the 3-CL motionless with the NDH and the 5-CL is held underneath and moves to show the motion. By speeding up, slowing down, or maintaining a constant speed with the 5-CL, one can show acceleration, deceleration, or constant speed, respectively.


[POs ><] By varying the distance between hands, the condensation and rarefaction of a medium in longitudinal waves can be demonstrated.
[POs down, hands move in direction of FTs] Shows orderly movement of animals.


[PO starts down and on the NDS; curve of hand traces out shape] Describes a rough planar surface, such as a mound of dirt, with eee and wavy motion for very rough surfaces.
[PO starts away, then hand suddenly twists PO down] Shows the placement of a large object or a group of small objects.
[FT peck at surface] Shows the presence of many small points, pits, or holes . For example, the panoply of stars.


[POs starts down; curve of hand(s) traces out shapes] Describes a rolling, rough planar surface, with eee and wavy motion for very rough surfaces. Spheres or ellipsoids.
[POs ><] Spread of spherical wavefront with a slight hopping motion.
[POs down, hands move in direction of FTs or opposite them] Large group of seated people or four-legged animals. Animals may be moving.
[FT peck at surface] Shows the presence of many small points, pits, or holes .


[POs down, FOs point in direction of flow] Flow of liquid; movement of people or animals.


[PO down, sudden intake of air] Shows sudden transition: suction, rapid evaporation, volatility.

open 8-CL

[POs face NDH which may represent the shape of the object from which the shine is emanating] Shininess.

(2h)open 8-CL

[POs face the object from which the shine is emanating] Shininess.
[POs towards and move appropriately] Movement of shiny objects passing observer.

Readings on classifiers

Allan, K. (1977). Classifiers. Language,53, 285-311. (A discussion and comparison of fifty different spoken languages that use classifiers - for the linguist.)

Baker, C, and Cokely, D. (1980). American Sign Language: a teacher's resource text on grammar and culture. Silver Spring, MD: T.J. Publishers, Inc., 287-329, 333-357, 363-370. (The most accessible to the average interpreter, with many illustrations and example sentences - accompanying videotape.)

Bellugi, U. & Newkirk, D. (in press). Formal devices for creating new signs in ASL. To appear in National symposium on sign language research and training: 1977 proceedings. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of the Deaf.

Klima, E. & Bellugi, U. (1979). The signs of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lidell, S. American Sign Language syntax. The Haugue: Mouton.

Supalla, T. (in press). Morphology of verbs of motion and location in American Sign Language. To appear in National symposium on sign language research and teaching: 1978 proceedings. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of the Deaf.

Supalla, T. (1985). The classifier system in American Sign Language. In C. Craig (ed.), Noun classification and categorization. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Valli, C. and Lucas, C. (1992). Linguistics of American Sign Language. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press. (Cokely/Baker has more extensive explanation of classifiers, but this volume is more up-to-date on the most recent research in ASL linguistics.)

Wilbur, R., Bernstein, M., and Kantor, R. (1985). The semantic domain of classifiers in American Sign Language. Sign Language Studies, 46, 1-38.

Videotapes/CD-ROMs on classifiers

Bar-Tzur, D. (2004). How can I interpret it when I don't know what it means?! Classifiers and wave dynamics. General applications of classifiers in technical topics are discussed and wave dynamics and fluid mechanics are used as specific applications for classifiers: (1) An English lecture is given on the first wave dynamics and later fluid dynamics. (2) Signs, classifiers, and negotiated signs are discussed. (3) The student then interprets the same lecture as in step 1. (4) The author models how to interpret this same lecture. To order.

Bruce, P. Classy ASL interpreting with classifiers. Signs of Development, Inc. "This study of classifiers in ASL storytelling will expose you to the following categories: Understanding the principles of classifiers, knowing how to identify classifiers, analyzing classifiers, expanding classifiers in signing skills, 'reading' classifiers [in] ASL storytelling." To order. Webmaster: "Trix" (Patricia Bruce) has an elegant signing style that will suck you into her beautiful world.
Bruce, T. More classifiers. Classifiers can do anything! (Well, almost.) This video offers a variety of stories presented by Trix Bruce entirely through the use of classifiers. See handshapes transforming into animals, places, objects and more. Videotape and book.

Hernandez, M. C4: Classifiers in storytelling. "This workshop is the first step to bringing your ASL stories and interpretations to life with and more vibrant with classifiers. There are many activities to challenge you and Manny provides models of several stories plus an example of a story without classifiers and one using classifiers." To order.

Lazorisak, C. and Lazorisak, A. Classifiers: Describing our surroundings. Signs of Development, Inc. "This workshop will look at a typical day and those things that you come into contact every day of your life. From that, Carole and Andy will discuss classifier and give samples of how to describe things such as traffic signs and how to describe perspective (walking up to a building and how the distance changes the classifiers and descriptions used.)" To order.

Lessard, P., Veltri, D., and Jarashow, B. (2000). Classifiers: A closer look. The full product contains a 476-page instructor's manual divided into 2 volumes, 5 CD-ROMs for laboratory use, an additional CD-ROM for use by the instructor, and 4 videotapes to use in the classroom.

On fire with classifiers. Signed, voiced and on-screen text. 36 minutes.

Petrone Stratiy, A. Pursuit of ASL: Interesting facts using classifiers. Interpreting Consolidated, Box 203, Main P. O., Edmonton, Alberta T5J 2J1, CANADA.

Stomach this! The digestive system in English and ASL. Our second technical interpreting resource presents parallel lectures on the digestive system, with vocabulary and two levels of instruction (secondary and post-secondary). English lectures are presented by Paul Buttenhoff. ASL lectures are presented by Cara Barnett. [Webmaster's note: Ms Barnett is an exceedingly clear fingerspeller and this CD provides plenty of practice in receptive fingerspelling and classifiers.]

Supalla, S. & Bahan, B. (1994). ASL literature series: ASL Literature Series: Bird of a different feather & For a decent living. (Webmaster: I haven't watched the second story, but the first one is rife with classifiers. You couldn't ask for a videotape that would show you more in such a short time and the story is very instructive adn entertaining.) Workbook: 197 pages; soft cover; ASL; VHS: 120 minutes; ASL only, no voicing or captions. Two narratives as told in the student videotext are signed by the original oral literary artists. The accompanying workbook allows the user to study these narratives divided into structural units: strophes, topic units, chapters, and parts.

To the heart of the matter: The cardiovascular system in ASL and English. Created by the RSA Region V Project, this CD features lectures on the cardiovascular system by Paul Buttenhoff and Kendall Kail. Paul is an assistant professor at the College of St. Catherine who primarily teaches Anatomy and Physiology. He delivers the lectures in English. Kendall is a student at the University of Minnesota in Kinesiology. He gives parallel lectures in ASL. Both languages have lectures that are considered a warm-up (a shorter text which is at a high school level) and a technical lecture, which covers more information and is more consistent with an undergraduate setting. In addition, to prepare for working with the texts, there is a list of vocabulary and diagrams for consideration. Moreover, Patty McCutcheon, a certified interpreter, provides model interpretations of both technical lectures. [Wemaster's nore: Mr Kail is an excellent ASL language model and the tapes is good prectice for fingerspelling and use of classifiers.]

Tuccelli, M. On fire with classifiers. Classifiers are specialized signs which represent people, places, or things and are also used to describe objects. Once you start using classifiers, you will wonder how you ever survived without them! Classifiers can salvage boring signers and interpreters! ONE CLASSIFIER CAN REPLACE SEVERAL SIGNS! Signed, voiced and on-screen text.

Websites on classifiers


Willig, P. Classifiers in American Sign Language. Shows animations of classifiers and their uses.