Chapter 1 of The Signing Family: What Every Parent Should Know about Sign Communication continued . . .

What Is Signing?

Signing is a visual-gestural means of communication. To say that it is visual means that it is perceived through the eye, not the ear. To say that it is gestural indicates that signs are formed by the hands within a specific space, called the signing space. The signing space for most signed languages encompasses the area between the hips and the top of the head, from the body to the forward and sideways reaches of the hands. A few signs are made outside this space, for example, above the head or below the hips.

The meaning of a sign is determined by four elements: (1) the location, (2) the shape of the hand(s), (3) the movement of the hand(s), and (4) the orientation of the palm(s). Changing any one of these characteristics results in the formation of a different sign. The difference between the ASL signs bored and bitter is in the location in which they are made (see figure 1). The sign know can be changed to think by simply changing the handshape (see figure 2). The signs father and grandfather are the same except with respect to movement (see figure 3). In father, the thumb bounces slightly against the forehead, while in grandfather, the whole hand moves out from the forehead. The difference between thing and children is in the orientation of the palms (see figure 4).

[Figures 1, 2, 3, & 4 here]

The signs formed by the hands are not the sole components of a signed language. That is, not all of the linguistic information that a signer imparts comes from the hands. Just as words convey meaning when embedded in sentences, signs must be arranged according to certain grammatical structures to express a signer's thoughts.

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