Free American Sign Language Classes

ASL 2 – Unit 5

Classifiers

In this unit of the free American Sign Language classes, you will be learning about classifiers.

Conversation

Read this outline, and then watch the conversation in action on the video clip. Try to recognize what is being said. Watch the video again until you can follow the conversation without the outline.

A: (get-attention) YOU CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED!
“You wouldn’t believe what just happened!”

B: HAPPEN WHAT?
“What happened?”

A: I WALK CL:1(person)”walking” STREET I HAPPEN SEE CAR CL:3(car)”swerving” CRASH OTHER CAR
“I was walking along the sidewalk when all of a sudden I saw a car swerve into the wrong lane and crash into another car head-on.”

B: NOTHING TRUE HAPPEN ME CL:1(person)”walking” CL:C(pole) WRONG CL:2(person)”fall”/CL:B(ground) FACE
“Oh that’s nothing. I was just walking over here when I tripped over a pole lying in the middle of the sidewalk and landed flat on my face.”

A: YOU SCRATCHES”on face and arms”.
“Oh that’s where you got all those scratches!”

B: RIGHT YES.
“Yes, that’s right.”

Conversation Explained

A: I WALK CL:1(person)”walking” STREET I HAPPEN SEE CAR CL:3(car)”swerving” CRASH OTHER CAR
“I was walking along the sidewalk when all of a sudden I saw a car swerve into the wrong lane and crash into another car head-on.”

In this conversation, Deborah uses classifiers to explain the cars she saw crash into each other. You will learn more about classifiers in this unit.

B: NOTHING TRUE HAPPEN ME CL:1(person)”walking” CL:C(pole) WRONG CL:2(person)”fall”/CL:B(ground) FACE
“Oh that’s nothing. I was just walking over here when I tripped over a pole lying in the middle of the sidewalk and landed flat on my face.”

In this conversation, the sign Mark uses for “NOTHING” ((2h)F-handshape) translates into “that’s nothing” or “no big deal”.

Classifiers

Spoken languages like English are linear–they are expressed one word after the other. ASL, however, is a spatial language and is expressed in the space around you. Classifiers create depth as well as add clarity, movement, and details to conversations and explanations. These will play a big part in the rest of lessons in these American Sign Language classes.

In ASL, it makes much more sense to create imaginary people, animals, or objects in your signing space and show what happens to them instead of explain every word in a linear fashion like you would in English.

As you will see in the examples in these American Sign Language classes, the handshapes and movements of classifiers can represent people, animals, objects, etc. and show movements, shapes, actions, and locations. They can show a person walking, an animal chewing, someone driving, a car driving through the mountains–virtually anything!

In a sentence, a classifier is very similar to a pronoun. You learned about pronouns in the last class of these American Sign Language classes. You cannot use a classifier in a sentence until you explain what the classifier represents. They are not standalone words. You need to establish the noun before you can apply the classifier.

An example of a classifier would be showing a person walking. You first have to establish this person as a referent in context and point to the referent, and then you can take the index finger of your dominant hand (the CL:1 classifier) and move it around your signing space. Whatever you do with this classifier is whatever the person is doing. You can also inflect the sign for added meaning. The faster or slower you move this classifier shows how fast or slow the person is doing an action. You can also use non-manual markers to show how the person is feeling while doing it. And because most classifier handshapes represent a whole person or object, you can combine classifiers like CL:1(person) with another classifier like CL:3(car) to show a person and a car and their locations relative to each other. You will see more complex examples like this later on in the American Sign Language classes.

There are an infinite number of classifiers that you can use. You can combine almost any handshape with any movement and location to create a classifier.

Classifiers are written like this: CL:1 (person) “walking slow”. The CL indicates that a classifier is being used, the 1 indicates the handshape, the parenthesis indicate what the classifier is representing, and the quotes indicate the inflection being used. This is the format I will use to explain classifiers in these American Sign Language classes.

Here are some examples of handshapes and how they can be used for different types of classifiers:

asl classifiers
asl classifiers

Here are some of the different types of classifiers that you can use:

  • Whole Classifiers: These are classifiers where the handshape represents a whole object. For example, CL:3(car), CL:1(person), etc.
  • Surface Classifiers: These are classifiers where the handshape is used to show the surface of something. For example, CL:B(wall), (2h)CL:B(hills), etc.
  • Instrument Classifiers: These are classifiers where the handshapes show that you are holding something. For example, CL:C(holding cup), CL:S(hold hammer), CL:S(driving), etc.
  • Size Classifiers: These are classifiers where the handshape shows the depth or width of something. For example, (2h)CL:C(thick vertical pole), (2h)CL:F(thin vertical pole), (2h)CL:L-curve(small plate), etc.
  • Amount Classifiers: These are classifiers where the handshapes show the increase or decrease in the amount or volume of something. For example, CL:B-bent(liquid level decreasing), etc.
  • Shape Classifiers: These are classifiers where the handshapes trace the exterior shape of something. For example, (2h)CL:B(large box shape), (2h)CL:L-curve(credit card), etc.
  • Location Classifiers: These are classifiers where the location of the handshape represents the location of something. For example, CL:5-claw(city here), CL:A(house here), CL:5-claw(bush here), etc.
  • Gesture Classifiers: These are classifiers where you use your body to act out something. For example, “stomp foot”, “give hug”, etc.
  • Body Classifiers: These are classifiers where the handshape shows a part of your body doing an action. For example, CL:V(look around), (2h)CL:G(big smile), (2h)CL:B(foot stumble), etc.
  • Verb Classifiers: These are classifiers that are used to show how something is doing an action. For example, CL:3(car)”drive down hill”, CL:3(bicycle)”drive by”, etc.
  • Plural Classifiers: These are classifiers where the handshape and movement show that there is more than one of something. Some handshapes already indicate plurality, like CL:V(two people)”walking”.
    However, you can indicate plurality with non-plural classifiers by using both hands in alternating, straight line/repeating, or opposite motions. Alternating motions indicate that the classifiers are not arranged in an orderly fashion. For example, (2h)CL:3(cars)”here, here, here, etc.”
    Straight line/repeating motions (moving dominant hand and keeping non-dominant hand stationary as a referent) and opposite motions (starting together, then moving away from each other simultaneously) indicate they are arranged in an orderly fashion. For example, (2h)CL:4(people in line), (2h)CL:1(pencil)”(dh)lined up one right after the other”, (2h)CL:5-claw(hordes-of people), (2h)CL:2(people sitting in a circle), etc.

Classifiers in Action

In the video below, Crystal will sign a popular Deaf joke. This video shows the many possibilities for using classifiers.

Watch the video and read the text below to see classifiers in action:

Here is a breakdown of every classifier that Crystal uses in this joke:

CL(2h):5(claw)(ears)”big”
CL(2h):E(face)”round”
CL(2h):5(body)”fat and bulky”
CL:C(arms)”thick”
CL:5(claw)(fingers)”thick”
CL(2h):S-5(nostrils)”flaring”
CL(2h):Horns(teeth)”long and sharp”
CL(2h):”walking on knuckles”
CL(2h):B(building)”tall”
CL(2h):G(windows)”many small”
CL(2h):”walking on knuckles”
CL(2h):5(claw)”climbing up”
CL(2h):L(window)”looking in”
CL:L(window)/CL:1(claw)(person)”frantically running around”
CL:L(window)/CL:5-S(hand)”grabbing someone”
CL:B(hand)/CL:V(inverted)”person standing”
CL:5(claw)(hand)”putting person on shoulder”
CL:5(claw)”climbing down”
CL(2h):”walking on knuckles”
CL(2h):5(people)”running”
“feel ground shaking”
CL(2h):4(hair)”standing on end”
CL(2h):G(people)”escaping quickly”
CL(2h):”walking on knuckles”
CL:V(person)”sitting on shoulder”
“person holding on”
CL(2h):”walking on knuckles”
CL(2h):B(building)”shape of building”
CL(2h):5(claw)”climbing up”
CL:5(claw)(hand)”taking person off shoulder into hand”
CL(2h):S-L(heart)
CL:Flat(hand)
CL(2h):5(claw)(hands)”clasped”
CL(2h):5(claw)(hands)”looking between hands”

As you can see, the possibilities are truly endless!

Watch the video again now that you understand the use of classifiers. As you watch the video this time, try to notice the type of classifiers each of them are and what handshape Crystal chooses to use for each.

Classifiers are a very important part of ASL and you will see them a lot in American Sign Language classes. There isn’t a sign for every English word and classifiers are able to fill those gaps and create more visual clarity.

Comprehension 5.1

Turn to page 6 in your workbook. This was the video used for the Temporal Aspect practice in the last unit. In the video below, I will sign 10 sentences. For each number, put an “X” next to the most accurate translation of the sentence.

When you’re finished, check your answers in the back of the workbook. Go back and review the questions you missed.

Reading Assignment

In DJSC! A Student’s Guide to Mastering ASL Grammar, read Chapter 5 (ASL Morphology), Section 5.3. (Classifiers). This section explains and demonstrates classifiers in ASL. It includes more detailed information and examples for practical application.

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