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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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1,000 Signs of Life: Basic ASL for Everyday Conversation
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Signs Have Parts

Every sign is made up of five basic components or parameters. These parameters are handshape, palm orientation, location, movement, and nonmanual signals. If any of the five parameters change, the meaning of the sign also changes.

   Handshape. The handshape is the most obvious part of a sign. The most frequently used handshapes are the letters of the American Manual Alphabet and the manual numbers (see figures 1 and 2), but there also are variations on some of these handshapes (for example, the Bent B used for remind on p. 193, and the Flat O used for eat on p. 66), or combinations such as L and I (for airplane on p.162), and 1 and I (for camping on p. 162).

   Palm Orientation. Orientation refers to the direction that the palm faces (up, down, left, or right). This is a useful way of describing the starting position of a sign. Once the palm is described, the placement of the fingers and back of the hand is obvious.

   Location. Signs are formed on or near only certain areas of the body. Approximately 75 percent of all signs are formed between the head and the chest, where they can be seen more easily. The location of a sign frequently contributes to its meaning. For example, many signs that represent feelings are made near the heart, whereas signs related to thought processes are made near the head.

   Movement. Meaning also can be expressed through movement. The direction in which a sign moves may indicate who is giving or receiving the action of a verb. For example, if the sign help moves out from the signer, that means the signer is offering help to someone. If the sign moves in toward the signer, it means someone is helping the signer.

The repetition of the movement may indicate several things—the frequency of an action, the difference between singular and plural, or the distinction between a noun and a verb. The size of the movement can show volume or size, and the speed of the repetition combined with the appropriate facial expressions may convey whether the action was completed quickly or slowly. Generally, the signs in this book show basic movements.

   Nonmanual Signals. Being a good signer involves more than just executing signs correctly. In spoken languages, the tone of the speaker’s voice adds additional meaning to the message. In signed languages, additional information is carried through the signer’s body and facial expressions. This nonmanual parameter occurs at the same time that the sign is produced to contribute to its meaning. The signed message is quite different if you shake your head no or nod your head yes while signing hungry.


While ASL is not a code for English, it does have a way to include English words. This is done by spelling words with one hand. The American Manual Alphabet has a handshape to represent each letter of the English alphabet (see page 3), and signers use this alphabet to spell out English words. This is called fingerspelling. Signers fingerspell when a particular concept, like a proper name, a brand name, or a relatively new idea or product does not have a sign. Technical terms are fingerspelled only if no sign currently exists and/or it is important to know the exact English term.

It’s important to hold your hand steady when you fingerspell. Keep it at mid-chest level, take your time, and try not to say the names of the individual letters as you sign them. Practice in front of a mirror to see both the expressive and receptive perspectives at the same time. Most people find it easier to fingerspell than to read someone else’s fingerspelling. When you read someone’s fingerspelling, it helps to remember that this is similar to reading words on a page. Whether you realize it or not, you do not read letter by letter, you see whole words and the configuration of words or phrases. In addition, you use context. The principles of learning how to read apply to reading fingerspelling as well. Don’t look for individual letters when someone is fingerspelling, look for clues, such as the length of a word, its position in the sentence, the configuration of the word, easily recognized letters and letter combinations (like –ing, and –tion), and sentence context to help you make an educated guess.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Learning ASL is similar to learning a spoken language—you have to use the language a lot before you can become fluent. 1,000 Signs of Life will give you a good start on your signing vocabulary. Use it to learn new signs and then refer to it to refresh your memory. Of course, the best way to learn ASL is to converse with a deaf person, but when you can’t, review the signs in 1,000 Signs of Life to prepare for your next encounter.

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