Elements of ASL
Many people with varying degrees of linguistic training have developed writing systems for American Sign Language. Naturally, some of the similarities between these systems stem from aspects of the language itself.
Like spoken languages, which construct sentences from phrases, phrases from words, words from syllables, and syllables from vowels and consonants, ASL has its own units of language that are combined to produce meaning. Unlike most spoken languages, which combine sounds sequentially, ASL combines linguistic units simultaneously.
In some Asian languages, tone and vowel sound are two different simultaneous elements of a single sound. In signed languages, many different elements are combined into a single pose or motion involving the hands, arms, shoulders, head, eyes, mouth, and nose.
Traditionally, the five elements of ASL are:
Within those categories, there are other elements that may or may not be used in every sign. Click on an element of ASL to see a comparison of how different writing systems represent that aspect of signing.
- Thumb-to-finger distance varied to indicate size
- Finger wiggling, rubbing, or flicking
- Grasping or pinching
- Change in handshape as part of a sign
- Wrist twisting or shaking
- Change in palm orientation as part of a sign
- Location on the Face, Head, or Body
- Location on the non-dominant hand
- Handshape of the non-dominant hand
- Location relative to the non-dominant hand
- Type of contact made with the location (touch, rub, brush)
- Reference location in the signing area
- What the signer's eyes are looking at
- Shape of motion (circular, straight, arc, etc.)
- Size of motion
- Speed of motion
- Symmetry (how the non-dominant hand moves compared to the dominant hand)
- Head tilt, nod, or shake
- Direction the signer is facing
- Eyebrow expression
- Eyelid expression
- Nose expression
- Mouth emotion
- Mouth shapes (lips, tongue, teeth, and cheeks)
- Mouth movement (changing mouth shape as part of a sign)
- Shoulder expression