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American Sign Language

Three elements — the shape of the hands, their location in space, and the manner in which they move — combine to create all the words of a sign language. The ASL signs FATHER, ROOSTER and THINK, shown from left to right, share a location (the forehead) and movement (the signer's hand comes to rest on the forehead). The difference lies in the handshape: for FATHER, an open palm; for ROOSTER, the extended thumb, index and middle fingers; for THINK, the extended index finger.


Top to bottom, the ASL signs SUMMER, UGLY and DRY share handshape and movement but differ in location. In these and the following illustrations, the "ghost" image represents the starting point of the hands, the full image their endpoint.


Left to right, the ASL signs COFFEE, WORK and YEAR share handshape and location but differ in movement.


Left to right, the ASL verb SMOKE and the related noun CIGARETTE. Where SMOKE is made with a large single movement, the movement of CIGARETTE is restrained and repeated. This alteration in movement is a regular grammatical process in ASL.


Changing a sign's movement pattern can produce a constellation of signs with related meanings. Above left, the simple ASL verb LOOK-AT, made with a single horizontal movement. In the middle, the same sign, made with the hand sweeping down, then up, means "size up" or "give the once-over." (Made with only the downward movement, it means "condescend" — literally, "look down on.") Right, LOOK-AT, made in a slow circle, means "look at intently" or "observe."


In the face lies grammar. Above, the ASL sentence "Father is home" (FATHER HOME) is signed with a neutral expression. Below, the same sequence of signs, made with raised eyebrows and a head tilt, becomes a yes-or-no question: "Is Father home?"


Signing an ASL sentence — "Mother gives the book to father" — by "hanging" actors in the air for later use. In Frame 1, the signer signs MOTHER, then points to a spot on her left. For the rest of the discourse, this invisible spot will refer to mother. In Frame 2, she does the same thing with FATHER, assigning it to a spot on her right. In Frame 3, she signs book. In Frame 4, the verb give travels through space from the spot denoting MOTHER to the one denoting FATHER. Thus, the sentence unequivocally means "Mother gives the book to father."