Just as spoken words are formed from "parts" (e.g. vowel sounds and consonant sounds) so are the signs in any Deaf Sign Language. But the "parts" of signs are not sounds. Rather the "parts" of a sign are specific handshapes, movements of the hand, and specific locations of the hand. For example, the Dictionary of American Sign Language (the first such dictionary based on linguistic principles) lists 18-19 handshapes, 24 movements, and 12 locations. You might wonder how is it that linguists were able to identify these specific handshapes, movements, and locations.
With spoken languages, you can identify meaningful sound units by finding minimal pairs. These are words that have different meanings and that differ in only one sound. Thus, that one sound must be meaningful and unique because if you change it, you produce a new word. For example, just by changing the first sound of the word hit you produce words such as bit, fit, kit, lit, mit, pit, quit, sit, wit, zit. The same procedure of contrastive analysis has been applied to American Sign Language to identify the meaningful handshapes, movements, and locations.
This has been a very simplified introduction to this topic. The essential point to remember is that each sign in a signed language is composed of a specific and unique combination of a handshape, a movement, and a location. Changing any one of these aspects of a sign changes the meaning of the sign. There are many fascinating aspects to this this topic. For example, researchers have been able to identify certain handshapes and locations that are used in other sign languages but that are not used in American Sign Languages (just as there are sounds used in other spoken languages that are not used in American English). Researchers have also studied the acquisition of handshapes by Deaf children and have identified acquisition stages from the use of more simple handshapes to more complex ones.
For mor information on research into Sign Language, visit the web site of Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.
A good collection of Deaf-related resources and web sites can be found here. When you get there,
click on the "deaf and hearing impaired" link at the right on the top of their page.
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