Classifiers in American Sign Language - dummies

By Adan R. Penilla, Angela Lee Taylor

Classifiers in ASL may sound complicated but they are not; they are a fun way to explain the finer points of the message you are conveying. Once you get the hang of them, you can show off your skill to your Deaf friends and let them teach you more about classifiers.

Classifiers are nothing more than handshapes that are grouped into categories with a specific purpose as describing something, showing relationships, demonstrating something, or taking the place of an object. Therefore, think of them as handshapes that can represent a person, place, or a thing by showing how things are positioned or shaped.

You can show what happens to these agents once they are set up as classifiers; classifiers clarify your point. This is why they are called Size and Shape Classifiers. Since classifiers show detailed information, do not use them until after you have explained the subject of the matter then explain the specifics by using classifiers. Classifiers will give the addressee all the specifics your hands can handle.

Here are some ideas to get you started. If you need a little help, remember the handshapes for A, C, and F.

  • The manual letter-A handshape with the thumb pointing upward can be any object that is erect as a vase, a stop sign on a street, or a computer tower on the floor. Identify the object first and then use the classifier to represent it.
  • The manual letter-C handshape can be a muscle on an arm, a drinking glass, or a wad of dollars in the hand. This classifier can be anything in an arch shape.
  • The manual letter-F handshape can be coins on a hand, small rocks, or polka dots on a shirt, anything in a small round shape.