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Structure of Sign Language

The seminal work by Stokoe in the 1960s laid the foundation for understanding not only that sign languages are languages in their own right, but that they can be analyzed linguistically in the same way that spoken languages can ([137]). Although Stokoe was focussing on the structure of American Sign Language (ASL), his analysis is applicable to other natural signed languages as well.

Signs are the basic lexical or “word” units in a sign language. Unlike the phonemes or sounds that make up a spoken word (e.g., /c/ a/ t/), sign “phonemes” (or cheremes according to Stokoe) are location, movement and handshape. For example, in ASL the sign for “cat” is made with an “f” handshape on the side of the face with a repeated motion. In British Sign Language it is signed with both hands open, fingers apart and slightly bent on both side of the face with a repeated outward movement. Please visit this Signing Savvy website page for the ASL sign and this British Sign Language website page for the BSL sign for "cat".

It is not accurate to think of signs simply as placeholders for spoken words (e.g., This is the sign for “happy”.) Signs are meaning units in their own right and need to be understood as distinct from words in how they represent thoughts, concepts and ideas. For example, the ASL sign for “happy” can convey a range of meanings depending on how it is signed.

The syntax and grammar of sign languages take advantage of the visual modality. Unlike spoken languages that are more linear – you hear language one sound at a time, signed languages can present information simultaneously. For example, in ASL you can convey the information ”three weeks ago” by incorporating the number, the concept of week and the notion of past in what appears to be one sign. Please visit this Signing Savvy website page for the sign for "three weeks ago".

Sign order is systematic and determined by what makes sense visually. For example, it is argued that all sign languages can be characterized as a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) or Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) in declaratives ([138]).