Classifiers (CL)

What is a classifier?

  1. It is a handshape or handshapes that are used to describe the size and shape of an object or person. 
  2. It can be used to represent an object or a person.
  3. It can be used to indicate quantity or volume. 
  4. Classifiers can serve as adjectives (big, small, fat, round, long, thin).
  5. Classifiers can indicate the relation between objects or people.
  6. Classifiers can refer to body parts of an individual or animal.
  7. The function of classifiers can be to show movement or location of an object.
  8. Facial expression and other non-manual features are often used with classifiers.

Let's look at a few scenarios below:

Scenario 1

Let's imagine you are in France and want to purchase a soccer ball for your child.  You go to the counter and ask the cashier in English: "I want to buy a ball". 

The French cashier looks at you and does not understand. 

>Using only your hands, how would you describe what you need?

Scenario 2

You are at a hardware store to look for a hosepipe, the guy behind the counter is Deaf. 

How can you show him you are looking for a hosepipe?

Scenario 3

At a coffee shop, you show the Deaf barista that you would like a little bit of milk with your coffee. She looks at you, and you describe with your one hand that you need a "little bit".  How would you show it?

In scenario one, did you use two of these handshapes?:


In scenario two, did you use two of these handshapes?:


In scenario three, did you use this handshape?:


If you did, then well done!  You have used a few classifiers to indicate what you need.  


Types of South African Sign Language Classifiers (Classifier classes) 


1.  X-Classifiers (Exhibiting Classifier AKA Semantic Classifier)

  • The handshape itself represents a person, animal or object. 
  • The way the handshape(s) moves, indicates the way the person/people move or the way the object or animal moves.
  • A person walking downstairs illustrated by using the G_HAND classifier (a type of x-classifier). 


2.  L-Classifiers (Locative Classifiers)

  • These type of classifiers can show something orbiting an object or person.
  • These type of classifiers can indicate, path or course, direction or location.
  • These classifiers can also show relation to another classifier or sign. 
  • A bullet leaving a gun or an arrow leaving a bow can be explained with these classifiers.


3.  I-Classifiers (Instrumental Classifiers)

  • The handshape of the I-Classifier describes how a tool or an instrument is handled. 
  • Examples can be:  Hitting a nail in with a hammer, the I-Classifier will indicate the way the hammer is held and its hitting motion.
  • More Examples: Wringing out a towel, pushing a button, clicking a computer mouse. 
  • The way a person hits a ball with a baseball bat can be explained with this classifier.


4.  ELT-Classifiers (Element Classifiers)

  • Element classifiers describe the movement of smoke, air, liquid or fire and can also show how the wind blows or flames move.


5.  D-Classifiers (Descriptive Classifiers) 

  • D-classifiers describes the shape, size of a person or place in 2D or 3D.
  • Descriptive classifiers describe the shape, size, texture or pattern of an object in 2D or 3D.
  • Indicate volume of liquids.


6.  BP-Classifiers (Body part classifiers)

  • Body part classifiers, usually refer to the person's body parts below the belt. It can also refer to the back of a person.
  • Example: Slowly walking, the way the two FLAT B-HANDSHAPES moves slowly forward in front of the other will illustrate slow walking.
  • A small girl on a chair is swinging her feet; the V-HANDSHAPE will indicate the feet. 


7.  A-Classifiers (Action AKA Body Classifiers)

  • Referring to parts of the body above the belt; showing where you have pain by directly touching the body part. 
  • Is categorise by using the body and hands to explain, almost like the game Charades®. For example: to indicate how a penguin waddles. Using extended arms to show the wings of an aeroplane and how it flies.
  • Acting out a story often involves role shifting while role playing.
  • Sometimes having direct contact with the upper parts of the body, example feeling where your wallet is.
  • The open and close movement of the fingers and thumb can indicate how a bird opens its mouth.


P-CLassifiers (Plural Classifiers)

This type of classifier works in conjunction with other classifiers. 

  • Repeating a classifier can indicate more than one person or object.
  • To indicate plural the classifier could either indicate a specific number (two people) or a non-specific number (taxis standing at a taxi rank or parked buses). 
  • A particular number (five taxis) or non-particular number (people standing in a queue).

 Most classifiers, if not all, work well with other classifiers and are usually not stand-alone.


In how many ways can we use classifiers?

∞ ways.


When to use classifiers?

  • NB. To use a classifier (x-classifiers, you first have to introduce  the person by fingerspelling his/her name and then point(index) to the classifier. In this case, it will be the:


P-classifiers, are usually used in conjunction with other classifiers and don't function too well on their own. For all other classifiers, there is a lot of freedom and they can be used almost at any time during signing to clarify the message or to add humour, action or drama. By pointing to the classifier "G-HAND", establishes the classifier as the individual which name you just spelt. Now everytime you point into the direction of where the classifier was, everyone, will know who you are referring to.