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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