These materials are from the archive of the SSC Website and may be outdated.


University of Edinburgh

Improving BSL Skills Workshop - using non-manual features

Presented on 27 February 2002


A classifier marks out a referent as belonging to a particular group or category.

There are many spoken languages in the world, including Chinese and Navajo which use classifiers: sometimes they are required by the syntax in much the same way as English requires the use of definite and indefinite articles, eg:

"Give me 'long thin thing' pencil"

It is important to recognise tat we will be helped in using and understanding sign language if we

  • start to notice the visual world more
  • recognise the structural ways in which this is embedded through BSL
  • actively begin to exploit classifier forms.

Be aware

  • that the same classifier can be used to refer to objects that are very difference in size; eg: cigarette and tube train;
  • that different classifiers can be used to refer to the same object (cf 'dog' example)

This may be one basis for dialect variation.

Notice how classifiers are used in preicates (verb forms), eg:

"Give me the book

Pick up the sock

I put the mug on the table."


Understanding one kind of experience in terms of another, eg:

Life is a flowing river

Political debate is a 'battle' with 'victory and defeat, winners and losers, etc'

Lakoff and Johnson's examples

Happiness is up

Sadness is down


Hand actions, eg:





Movements Sets, eg:





Note exploitation with conventional locations of head (thought) and chest (feelings) and
GOOD-BAD handshapes.

Classifier Table*


Classifier A
Size and shape Round or spherical objects; compact or
solid objects; horse galloping, ball, head, hoof, jaw
Tracing size and shape  

Hold narrow and/or cylindrical objects;
hold handles; shake prison bars, snooker cue, jug, briefcase

Instrumental Instruments with round, spherical or solid base;
pestle, polo stick, croquet hammer, mallet, poss stick
Touch Actions of the closed fist; boxer, knock, tap, hit, punch
thumb extended

Classifier Å
Size and shape Small, compact object with short upright extension; vinegar, oil shaker, vinegar bottle, candle
Tracing size and shape Tracing outlines of shapes; obese, straight line, arc, braces, curve of stomach
Handling Holding tool with blade or cutting component; potato peeler, razor, carving tool
Instrumental Instruments with blade; carve, razor, scalpel, knife, penknife
Touch Touching small items or areas with thumb; doorbell, sticking plaster, push button, ear plugs


Classifier G/G
Size and shape Objects wich are relatively long and thin, often cylindrical; the person classifier occupies a major paradigm of its own; cigarette, leg, missile, penis, tube train
Tracing size and shape Index fingers trace size, shape or outline of shapes and objects; window, square, triangle, lightning
Handling Holding objects on tip of index finger; contact lenses, plates (as in spinning places)

Instruments with a long narrow, often cylindirical component; compass, dowel, knitting needles

Touch Action of the index finger prod, poke, press/push buttons, get at (metaphorical extension)
all fingers but index curled, with index extended in hook shape

Classifier G
Size and shape Bent or curved objects; sitting with legs apart, bent legs, hooked nose, hearing aid
Tracing size and shape To trace position and size of (often uneven) lines; tears, cracks, zig-zag patterning
Handling Handling objects with bent index finger; ring pull

Instruments with a hooked component; caravan, butcher's hook, crane hook, towing hook


fourth, fifth and thumb curled, index and third extended together

Classifier H
Size and shape Straight narrow objects; dormitory, bed, bench, ears of rabbits, legs of animals
Tracing size and shape Tracing position and shape of objects; corridor, bridge, river, path, chef's hat

Long, narrow instruments, especially relating to cutlery; knife, spoon, cutlery, spurtle

fourth, fifth and thumb curled, index and third extended apart

Classifier V/V
Size and shape Objects with two fixed but moveable long narrow extension and wedge-shaped objects; compasses, legs, scissors, medal (ribbons), glasses
Tracing size and shape Tracing the size, position and outline of narrow objects; mayor, stripes, ribbons, collar, chain of office
Handling Handling objects between the extended index and middle fingers; smoke, cigarette, cigar

Instruments with two fixed but moveable extensions; scissors, compasses, fork

Classifier V
Size and shape Object with parallel surfaces, one wider than the other; badge, brooch, slide, hair clip, paper clip
Tracing size and shape  
Handling Handling of narrow object with extension; hypodermic syringe, inject, vaccinate, take blood

Instruments with parallel surfaces, one wider than the other

Touch rare
fourth, fifth and thumb curled, index and third extended in hook shape

Classifier V
Size and shape Objects with two fixed but moveable bent extensions; bent objects; drunk, legs (highly productive), trolley wires, inverted commas
Tracing size and shape Tracing the position, size and outline of stripes or lines, especially uneven lines: rare
Handling Handling of objects by the two bent fingers; tube (safety strap in tube train), circular aperture

Instruments with two, possibly bent, extensions; fork, prongs, double hook

Touch Touch with two bent fingers; rare

fourth and fifth fingers curled, other three extended in claw shape

Classifier V
Size and shape Round or spherical objects with three bent narrow extensions; spiral of coins, badge, watch, stone, claws
Tracing size and shape

Tracing usually by a twisting action, a circular shape, swelling or bump shown by outward movement; owl, circular markings, brooch, panda, bump

Handling Handling of round, spherical or uneven objects; chess player, stone, eyes (metaphorical handling), can't believe one's eyes

Instruments with three bent prongs; mechanical claw

Touch rare
middle three fingers curled, pinkie and thumb extended

Classifier Y
Size and shape Solid objects with extensions at each side or each end; typetalk, teapot, aeroplace, horns, telephone
Tracing size and shape

Tracing the position, size and outline of narrow objects; cheque, envelope, card, programme, leaflet

Handling Handling of solid items with extensions at either end; telephone, payphone, pipe, kettle, acoustic modem

Instruments which have a narrow extension and are grasped by the closed fingers; stirring implement

open hand

Classifier 5
Size and shape Objects with many long extensions; crowd congregating, procupine, punk hairstyle, eyelashes
Tracing size and shape

Tracing the position and size of stripes and lines and of (usually) undulating surfaces; sea, stripes, mesh, countryside, field

Handling Handling large, flat-sided or bulky items; carry heavy machine, carry large box

Instruments with several or many long, narrow extensions; garden rake, car-wash rushes, grinding machine

Touch Actions of the whole hands, the palms and the fingers; minicom, bounce, knead plasticene, type, remote control

*Adapted from Brennan, M (1992) 'The visual world of British Sign Language: an introduction' in
Brien, D (1992) The Dictionary of British Sign Language/English. London: Faber and Faber