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ASL Classifiers: Intro

The sign for "classifier" is "C-L."



A student asked: "What is a classifier and how is it different from a handshape?"

Dr. Bill responds:
Handshapes are one of the five fundamental building blocks of a sign: Handshape, movement, location, orientation, and nonmanual markers. (Nonmanual markers include those aspects of body language that do not involve the hands such as shoulder movements, head tilts, and facial expressions.)  The handshape is literally the shape in which we form our hand during the production of a sign.

All signs have a handshape.

Classifiers are signs that use handshapes which are associated with specific categories (classes) such as size, shape, usage, or meaning.

Over time certain handshapes have been used so often to show certain sizes, shapes, usages, or meanings, that when you hold up or use one of those handshapes people (who know the language) automatically associate the handshape with a particular category (or class) of:

Things (objects, people, animals)


The commonly recognized handshapes that are typically used to show different classes of things, shapes, and sizes are called "classifiers."

The movement and placement of a classifier handshape can be used to convey information about a referent's movement, type, size, shape, location or extent.  (A referent is that which you are talking about or that to which you are referring.)

Classifiers help to clarify your message, highlight specific details, and provide an efficient way of conveying information.

can be used to:

* describe the size and shape of an object.

* represent the object itself.

* demonstrate how the object moves.

* convey how it relates to other objects and or people.

In general, classifiers have to be "introduced" prior to using them to represent an object. If we are going to talk about Jane, who is not in the classroom - I'll spell her name. Or if I'm talking about my sister, then I sign "sister" prior to using CL: 1 or CL: V. (Sister, CL1: bumped-into old boyfriend) Or if I'm talking about baseball, I'll identify the sport before using the CL:3-bent to represent the ball.


An effective classifier mimics the natural movement general shape of the object to which it is referring. If using a CL:O-flat to represent a dinosaur, the head ought to jog/jab forward to represent the animal's long strides; or if using the same handshape for a cobra, the hand must mimic the cobra's side-to-side dance.

Classifiers often work well with other classifiers to provide specific details about a situation, event, person, or thing.

For example, if you want to describe a couch, you can use the sign for COUCH which is done by signing SIT then using moving both palm-down C-hands outward. If you wanted to make the point that the couch was lumpy you could then move your "C" hands in an up and down wavy manner as you move them to the outside. Or if you wanted to describe the couch as being very long or being in an L-shape you can move your "C" hands further apart or in an "L"-movement path.


Classifiers help to paint a more precise picture of what your object looks like or of what happened. For example, suppose there was a car crash, what happened to the car? Did the other driver hit you from the side, the front? What happened to you? Did you hit your head on the steering wheel or fly through the window?

 The list of classifiers below is a work in progress and is therefore not complete. It is not put forth as a comprehensive list of all the classifiers that are being used in American Sign Language, or how they are being used. it is simply a list of many of the more common classifiers.

The best way to learn how to use classifiers is by getting out in the Deaf community and observe the masters. Meet and chat with those who are native Deaf as much as you can. Engage in conversations, interact, and learn.

Note: as you study classifiers on some of these pages I have included signs which evolved from classifiers but are so now so common and standard that they are considered just regular signs.

A few of the more frequently occurring classifiers:

CL:1  Things that are (relatively) long and skinny.  A pencil, a stick, a person.
an object in a certain location.  A house, a lamp.
CL:3- vehicles, [motorcycle, park a car, row of cars, accident, garage]
CL:4-["line of people" CURTAIN]
CL:5-modified-[scads of]
CL:B- flat things[roof, flat, wall]
CL:C-[thick things, round pole-like things]
CL:C-(index and thumb)  pepperoni, cookies, campaign buttons
CL:F - small round things: buttons, quarters, tokens, eyeballs, instrumental classifier for holding on to small things, (also for showing movement of small flying insects)
- thin things (or degree of thinness), also "eyelids"
CL:L(modified)-[large, big-headed/egoistic/conceited, check, card, square]
CL:R Rope-like, braided, rolled,and/or twisted things.
CL:V- legs, a person walking-(upside-down V), two people walking, [stand, walk-to, lay down, toss-and-turn, dive, jump, skate board, scooter, get up] 
CL:V- legs, a person walking-(upside-down V), two people walking, [stand, walk-to, lay down, toss-and-turn, dive, jump, skate board, scooter, get up] 
CL:V-bent  a small animal, or a larger animal sitting.

CL:Y  Very wide things.  A fat person walking (WADDLE).  A hippopotamus's mouth.





Objects in specified locations: a house or building on a street, a statue or vase on a table, a lamp on a desk.



    Smooth, flat surfaces: road or runway; wall, hallway, ceiling, floor, shelf

    Flat mobile surfaces: surfboard, skateboard, snowboard, people mover (moving sidewalk)

    Inanimate objects in specified locations:
pictures on a wall, books on a table, racecar on a road

    Inanimate objects in specified positions:
books lined upright on a shelf, papers facing down

    Height and width: a person's height, the width of a box, a stack of books

    Delineating 3 dimensional objects: house, box

    A non-motorized riding device: horse, bicycle

curved hand


Curved objects: bowl, sink, basin or a digging device



    Smooth, flat surfaces: a long stretch of desert or road

    Describing a object with sharp corners: the top of an area, such as a shelf or refrigerator



    Long cylindrical objects: pipe, canal, tunnels

    Short cylindrical objects: cup, glass, bottle

    Thick cylindrical shapes: tree trunk, biceps

    Thickness or depth of an object: a book, pizza, blanket, stack of papers, snow fall



    Clusters of objects in specified location: a group of students in the back room, a cluster of flowers

    Sections: location of a room in a house, sections of a city, an article or column in a newspaper

    Large objects in a specified location: a house out in the middle of nowhere, a camper on the back of a truck

    Medium, round, flat objects: cookie, badge, small cap (yarmulke), a large dial

    Small spherical objects: clown nose, bulging eyes

    Large spherical objects (two hands): ball

    Teeth: commonly used for baring teeth



    Small round flat objects: a disc, gold nugget, piece of food, moon

    Height and/or width of small objects (similar to CL: G): a small bottle of perfume, a short pencil, a long screw or nail

    Large pinchers: parrot beak



    Small, thin, round objects: button, coin, polka dots, pepperoni, pepper shaker

    Long, thin, cylindrical shaped objects: stick, dowel, curtain rod, small roll of paper, water hose, faucet

    Eye gaze: a person looking up or down, eyes moving back and forth, a person rolling his eyes

    Person moving along: hiking, walking, wandering around






    Short or shallow depths: thin layer of ice, shallow water, a small stack of papers

    Flat and thin with squared edges: picture frame, ruler, strip of paper

    Thin shapes (in general): mustache, sideburns, collar

    Small Pinchers: beak of a small bird, tweezers

H (or "U")


    A variation of CL: V: legs together, standing on a sidewalk, a person on a surfboard

    Thin flat objects: boards, bacon, noodles, name tag or badge, label, band aid

    Lathering device: spreading butter or frosting, a dog licking a person's face



Fastening small objects to something else (using a clasping movement): badge, earrings, hair barrette, paper clip



    Very thin and long objects: string, yard, wire, thread, cherry stem

    Defining boundaries: line, line that one does not cross



    Animals with two horns: bull, ox, cow

    Pronged items: goal posts, pitch fork, forklift, and the start of a gun (at the beginning of a race)

    Objects with sharp borders for roofs and loose sides: tent, canopy, circus, castle



    Type of airplane: with slight finger modifications, airplane can become a supersonic jet (CL: RY), a space ship (CL: XY)

    Movement: landing, take off, skidding on a runway, crashing in midair



    Thin squared objects: placemat, driver's license, greeting card

    Thin squared objects in a specified location and or position: pictures on a wall, mirror, a window frame

    Objects with a short barrel: drill, welding device, gun (pistol), laser



    Circular or oval shaped objects: (similar to CL-C-modified, but larger) dish, rug, platter

    Thin round surface: lake, round table, paint spill, round mirror, puddle of water

    Spraying device (with index wiggle): window cleaner, water gun


    Thick medium sized, cylindrical objects: rod, tree branch, pipe, large cable, firehouse, salt shaker

    Viewing devices: goggles, telescope, binoculars


    Small squat objects (with rounded end): very fast race car

    Objects that are round at the bottom and a slight opening at the top: tulips, closed flower bud

    Animals with long necks: giraffe, llama, goose, swan, dinosaur, cobra

    Thick Claws: (slight modification of CL:O-flat>CL:5) lobster, crab



    Braided or twisted material: rope, cable, braids, curled strands (hair or ribbon)

    Short, round, somewhat thick with narrowed tips: cigars



    Solid, spherical objects: head (of a person or animal); head bobbing, head retreating (into shell)

    Ramming device: pistons of a car engine, fist (or anything solid that can be jammed in or packed in tight) Cranking handle: window crank, old fashion ice cream machine

    Long thin round hand-held objects: spear, large stirring spoon, rake handle



    People (or rather legs of people): laying down, standing up, legs together, kicking

    Two long thing things, parallel to one another: train tracks

    Two pronged device: fork, forklift

    Groups of 2: 2 people walking together or standing

    Scissoring object:  scissors, claws of a crab or lobster



    Seated (person or animal: crouching, squatting, hunched down, perched

    Bending knees: climbing stairs or mountains, jumping, sitting

    Arrangement of chairs: chairs in a semi-circle; circle or semi circle; multiple rows

    Thin pulling object: bow string, pulling wire (to signal the bus to stop)

    Sliding device: sled, roller skates

    Raking device: parallel scratch marks or paint streaks

    Sets of teeth: chattering teeth

    Head of an animal with floppy ears: rabbit

    Two pronged teeth: most commonly, snake, vampire, squirrel or chipmunk

    Long objects with a connective ending: bones, joints



    A person or animal that is crouched or hunched over (using a modified version of CL: 1): a person who skulks, slinks, shrinks or slouches.

    A scratching or digging device: scratch or scar, a digging or chipping apparatus (such a pick ax or mining tool)

    Anything with a hook: boat anchor, door latch, fishing hook, talons, tow, bat (animal), beaked nose

    Long curved sliding device: ice skates, skis



    Small objects commonly held between fingers: key or winding device

    Small bulbous objects: onion, garlic



    Wide or long objects: hippopotamus' mouth, long word, high heels (stilettos)

    Objects with handles: beer mug, pitcher, and in some instances, suitcase, luggage, or briefcase

    Long curved object: cow horn, smoking pipe, telephone

    Spanning the width or breadth of an object: ruler



    Long, skinny objects: most commonly, a singular person

    Small cylindrical objects: sticks, pencils

    Delineating 2 dimensional objects: poster board, plot of land, circle, diamond (any shape)

    Trajectory paths and or connections: one way street, two way street, intersection, ball flying midair, a snake moving across a surface, tears

    Animals that crawl: (modification CL:1>CL:X) caterpillar, snail





    Motorized vehicles: car, tractor, helicopter, bus, motorcycle

    Vehicle related events: parking a car, driving erratically, parallel parking, garage, car accident

    Groups of 3: 3 people crossing the road

    Feet: duck feet, hiking, walking, position of feet as a person walks

    Liquid spray over large surfaces: spray painting a car or house

    (upright) sails on a boat



    Small objects gripped by the index, thumb and middle finger: computer mouse, baseball, bowling ball

    Large beak: commonly used to represent birds of prey, eagle, falcon (if placed in front of mouth)

    Hands: (modification of CL:5-claw) particularly for scaling or climbing large object, wall, boulder

    Hands that are stashing: stocking shelves, investing in stocks

    Containers held by index and thumb, requiring ejection of contents (using thumb): needle, vaccinations



    Parallel lines: stripes, bars, fence, upright boundaries

    Objects that leak: bleeding, drool, running water, draining (ear, sink, pipes)

    Objects that flow: curtains, hair, streamers

    Group of 4: 4 people standing or walking together

    Traffic: (using a modified 4 or 5 handshape) traffic jam, multi-lane freeways


or "OPEN-(flat)"


    Stiff and straight: hairs or fur that stand on end, Mohawk

    Objects that are extremely porous: filters, screen, wind, breeze

    Group of 5: 5 people standing or walking together

    Large flat object: a serving platter, flat lid

    Flowing porous objects (using a modified 5) CL:5 > CL:O or CL:O > CL: 5: headlights, flashing lights, sunlight, shower

    Objects that have projectile movements: vomit, diarrhea, flash flood, copious tears

    Delineate height or movement of water: ocean, flood, rising water, waterfall

    Traffic: (using a modified 4 or 5 handshape) traffic jam, multi-lane freeways

    Upright objects viewed while traveling very fast: commonly used to describe blurred scenery while driving very fast.



    Scads of (too many to count): stars in the sky, freckles, audience or crowd, basket full of clothes, gobs of money

    Objects that are rough, jagged: rake, the plowing device on a large tractor

    Objects that are withered or curled up: withered tree

    Representing groups of people sitting together: carpool

    Hands: (modification of CL:5-claw) particularly for scaling or climbing large object, wall, boulder




Need to add:







DrVicars: What is a classifier? What do you think Art?

Art:  I think you caught me not doing today's homework.

DrVicars: Heh, sorry, for putting you on the spot.

Heather: It's the form of the fingers or hands to indicate a type of sign. Such as... if you want to sign a cup or a plate, you form either a small circle with the hands, or you form a larger circle with the hands.

Tigie: Like long narrow things and round flat things?

Daniel: Signs that represent classes of objects such as land or water vehicles as a group.  

DrVicars: Those are some great answers, I think we are getting there. :)   Now give me another example... [time passes] ...Anyone feel free...

Sandy: Like using the index finger to show long skinny things?

DrVicars: Good, right. Let me explain it a bit more for you. If I want to show a person (we will call him "Fred") walking and I have established him on my right I can take my right index finger and move it to the left to represent "Fred" walking across the room (or wherever).  The index finger is (in this instance) being used as a classifier.  I can also inflect the sign in various ways (speed, distance, movement path, non-manual markers, etc). If I add a non-manual marker such as a facial expression it influences the meaning of my classifier. For example, If I do the CL:1-"walk across the room" sign with a smile It means Fred is happily walking across the room.  If I do it quickly It means Fred is hustling etc. [Changing how you do a sign is what you would call "inflecting" the sign for meaning.]

Sandy: What I didn't understand in looking at this was - isn't it overly broad? Is it really understood?

DrVicars: Think of classifiers as a type of pronoun.

You have to identify your pronoun before you can use it. Also you have to use it in context. I cant just start a conversation with you by signing, "HE WALK." I have to set up some sort of situation or context, then I spell F-R-E-D, and then point to the right then form the INDEX-finger-classifier (or "Classifier 1" also shown as CL:1)  and move it to the left.

Tigie: How do you know that classifier "F" isn't part of a fingerspelled  or initialized word instead of representing a small round thing?

DrVicars: Great question. The answer is context. It is the same way you know the letter O and the number 0 are different. It depends where they show up.

DrVicars:  I don't expect you all to be experts at classifiers, just want you to know they exist.
An example on that "F" concept: If I sign "I BUY NEW SHIRT" then I touch an F on my chest and throw it off suddenly it could mean: "and the button popped off." The "F" classifier acquired the meaning of "button" because of the context (I was talking about "shirts" and placement on my chest).

Tigie: Would everyone understand that a button popped off and not for instance a bottle cap?

DrVicars: Remember this concept: "Show, don't tell." It is much faster to create an imaginary person or object then show what happens to it or him--than to describe every item in the situation. In the case of the bottle cap I would have had to indicate a bottle of some kind before using an f classifier. The only possible meaning for the classifier in the shirt example would be a button, because that was the context.  People normally don't wear a row of bottle-caps down the front of their shirts.

Sandy: So, classifiers are used later on in the "sentence,"--it makes more sense now.

Heather: Why would you use the "F" sign to show a button popped off? Wouldn't you use a "B?"

DrVicars: Because the shape of the fingerspelled letter "F" has a round hole representing the shape of a button. Remember ASL is not linking to English it is linking to a concept

Heather: Thanks, that makes perfect sense.

Classifiers vs. Signs:


All classifiers are signs but not all signs are classifiers.

A "handshape" and a "classifier handshape" are two different things (even though they may look the same. For example, the handshape "A" is used in the sign "YOURSELF." But that isn't an example of a classifier. The "A" handshape in YOURSELF doesn't represent a certain size, shape, usage, or movement of "you." It doesn't "classify" you as being tall, short, fat, thin, or any other category. Thus when asked for an example of a "Classifier: A" if a student responds with the sign "YOURSELF" that answer is wrong. Another example is The ILY handshape when used to mean "I love you." The ILY handshape is not a classifier when it is used to mean "I love you." In that circumstance the ILY handshape is just a regular "sign." Remember, to be a classifier you have to classify something. When you sign "I love you" you are not classifying the person receiving your affection as being of a certain size, shape, usage, or any other general category. However, if you take that same ILY handshape and zoom it through the air as a representation of the specific movement path of an airplane then the ILY handshape does indeed become a "classifier." However the sign AIRPLANE is just a sign until you modify it to indicate something specific about an airplane. If you just hold up an ILY handshape (angled slightly downward) and move it forward an inch, back and inch and forward an inch (using two small movements) you have not done a classifier -- you have simply signed AIRPLANE. Suppose though at that point you twist your ILY handshape upside down and do a loop in the air with that handshape? Pah! You have changed the sign AIRPLANE into the CL-ILY: "airplane turn upside down and do a loop." It is not until you use the ILY handshape to specify some type or category of movement that the sign AIRPLANE becomes the classifier "airplane turn upside down and do a loop." Consider this bit of English language use: "There was an airplane. It flew upside down and did a loop." The first sentence names our topic. The second sentence uses the word "it" as a pronoun to refer back to the topic and then adds information describing what the airplane did. In the English sentence the word "airplane" is not a pronoun. It is a noun. In an ASL sentence just because you sign AIRPLANE doesn't make it a classifier. The sign "AIRPLANE" is "just" a noun." Later if we "add information" to the "AIRPLANE" sign (by changing the movement path or orientation) then it becomes a classifier referring back to the airplane and showing how the airplane moved.


The general sign "ESTABLISH" is not a classifier. For example, when used in the sentence, "I/ME ESTABLISH NEW BUSINESS" the sign ESTABLISH is not a classifier. Just because "ESTABLISH" uses an "A" handshape doesn't mean it is a "Classifier-A." Using the ESTABLISH sign in the phrase "Establish a business" isn't representing a "class" of business types. The "A" is just a general handshape that has long since become disassociated from any specific type, function, location, shape, or size of business.
However, if after you have named a referent (such as a house, building, statue, vace, lamp), you then do the "ESTABLISH" sign in a "certain location" in order to specify where your referent is located you are at that point using the sign ESTABLISH as a classifier meaning "The [referent] is here at this location."
- Dr. Bill

Classifiers are signs that are used to represent general categories or "classes" of things. They can be used to describe the size and shape of an object (or person). They can be used to represent the object itself, or the way the object moves or relates to other objects (or people). Another definition is: "A set of handshapes that represent classes of things that share similar characteristics."

Below are some examples of "types" of classifiers. I don't expect you to get a handle on these just because I list them, but I thought you would enjoy seeing a sample the diversity of classifiers out there (there are many more than I'm indicating here). This list is from a study guide I hand out to my students at the college during certain semesters when I teach from the Vista, Signing Naturally curriculum (Lentz, Mikos, & Smith, 1988).  Note:  I've modified the list here and there and added some of my own information.

Descriptive Classifiers (DCL), are also known as size and shape specifiers, (SASSes). They describe a person or object.
DCL:B (or bent B) "extremely tall"  [Explanation: to represent the descriptive classifier "extremely tall" you hold the "bent 'B' hand" high in the air while using an appropriate facial expression."]
DCL:bent-B "short"
DCL:4 "long hair"
DCL:1 "bulletin board"
DCL:1 "black board"
DCL:4 (claw) "freckles"
DCL:4 "striped"
DCL:G "thin"
DCL:4 (claw) "curley hair"

Semantic Classifiers, represent categories of nouns. For example, people or vehicles.
SCL:1 (person) "walking fast"
SCL:1 (person) "person walks to...____"
SCL:3 (car) "drives to____"
SCL:Y (fat person) "waddling"
SCL:flattened-O (fast-car) "cruising"
SCL:bent-V (row of chairs)

Locative Classifiers, show placement or spatial information about an object. Sometimes indicate movement.
LCL:C/LCL:B "place cup on napkin"
LCL:5 "leaf floating to the ground"
LCL:1 (sticks) "one here-one here"
LCL:B "shelf" (over to the right)
LCL:1 "goal-posts"
(2h)LCL:L "adjust a picture"

Plural classifiers
Indicating a specific number or a non-specific number.
PCL:2 "two people walking"
PCL:4 "long line of people"
PCL:4 "people moving in line"
PCL: 5 "hordes of _____." Often called "scads of."
PCL:V "people seated in a circle"

Instrument Classifiers, you use your hands (or an other part of your body) to manipulate an "object."
ICL "driving"
ICL "hammer in a nail"
ICL "play checkers"
ICL "play chess"
ICL "light match"
ICL (broom) ICL "sweep"
ICL (water) ICL"pour in"
ICL (garbage) ICL "dump out"
ICL (wash-clothes) ICL "hang up"

Body Classifiers/Mime
You use your body to "act out" or "role play." Sometimes this is like "mime." Other times you just show the action (or interaction) that is going on. Often this involves "role shifting."
"acting tough"
"give hug to child"
"running hard/pumping arms"
"wave to crowd"
"listen for strange noise"

Bodypart classifiers
A specific part of your body is doing an action.
(2h)BPCL:F "look at"
BPCL "kick back" (relax)
BPCL "cross legs"
BPCL ""tap foot"
BPCL "use gesture looking up"
BPCL:flat-C "big grin"
BPCL:L "red face" shy
BPCL:B "mouth frowning"

Student:  I don't get what it means in the outline where it says: SCL:1 (person) "walking fast"

DrVicars: Oh okay then... let me clarify that.

The SCL simply identifies the general category. 
The ":" means what a normal colon means.
The "1" represents making a "one" handshape with you index finger.
The ( ) tells you what it is representing--you have to pre-identify this in your sentence or conversation.
The manner or how it was done is in the "quotes"
So if I wanted to show "Bob" walking fast, I would fingerspell his name, then hold up that finger and move it quickly across my signing space. That would be a classifier indicating how he is moving.

In a message dated 4/2/2006 12:52:00 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time, John L. writes:
I have a question for you, can you give me a definition for "Classifier Predicates"?
Classifier Predicates:
A classifier (in ASL) is a sign that represents a general category of things, shapes, or sizes.
A predicate is the part of a sentence that modifies (says something about or describes) the topic of the sentence or some other noun or noun phrase in the sentence.
(Valli & Lucas, 2000)
The topic is "John" the predicate is an "adjective predicate" describing John's appearance.
Example:  JOHN RUN
The topic is "John" the predicate is a "verb predicate" stating what John did or is doing.
Example:  JOHN BED
The topic is "John" the predicate is a "noun predicate" stating John's location.
Example:  JOHN CL:FF "eyes quickly looked at right"
The topic is "John" the predicate is a "classifier predicate" indicating that John quickly looked to his right.
Whenever you use a classifier to describe the shape, size, movement, or location of a noun, you are using a "classifier predicate."

Classifier: 1 or index finger  CL:1
Classifier: 3 CL:3
Classifier: 5
Classifier: A
Classifier: B and Classifier; BB
Classifier: F
Classifier: H,R, and 4
Classifier: Inverted V and bent inverted V
Classifier: Quantifiers
Classifiers: Size, Location, Movement

Submitted by a reader:

Element classifiers: Describe things that do not have specific shapes or sizes, and are usually in constant motion. 
ECL:4 "a running faucet"
ECL:5wg "a candle flame"
ECL:1 (zig zag) "a flash of lightning"
ECL:flat O----->spread C "twinkling lights"


Lentz, E. M., Mikos, K., Smith, C., & Dawn Sign Press. (1988). Signing naturally teacher's curriculum guide. San Diego, CA: DawnSign Press.

Valli, C. & Lucas, C. (2000). Linguistics of American Sign Language. (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.


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