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Basic Guide for Communication in Catalan Sign Language

2.3. Signs from Within: parameters of sign forming

When we speak of articulators, the first thing that comes to mind most probably is the hands. However, apart from the hands, other body parts such as the head, face and trunk also become articulators. Signs, as mentioned in 2.1.1, are not holistic and indivisible units, but are formed by smaller units called formative parameters. According to authors Scott K. Liddell and Robert E. Johnson, within the sign structure we can find phonological units combined simultaneously (in contrast to words) while others are sequentially combined. We will focus here however on five parameters according to the classification and description proposed by professor and researcher Josep Quer. The first four are manual markers and the last non-manual markers. Thus, in the first group we find:

  1. Handshape. Form adopted by the hand depending on the position of the fingers. Although it is true that each language has its own repertoire of handshapes, some are more common because they are easier to form. Let’s look at some examples of handshapes and practice them.
  2. Place of articulation. This marker indicates the space in which the sign takes place. This can be the upper part of the body, with or without touching the body, and within the signing area, comprised by the space in front of the person signing and limited by the length of their arms upwards, outwards and to the sides. Normally signing does not occupy the total space mentioned and therefore we can consider the space used to sign comparable to the tone of our voice when speaking. Let’s see two places of articulation; the first is done in contact with the body and the second within the signing area.
  3. Movement. Most signs imply a movement between two places of articulation. Sometimes the sign contains an additional internal movement of the fingers or wrists which are considered secondary. Let’s see the movement for the signs EXAM and WEEKEND.
  4. Orientation. The direction in which the palm of the hand is facing. Let’s see a few signs having the same handshape, place of articulation and movement, but differ only in orientation. As we will see, a modification in only one of the parameters can change the meaning of a sign completely:

The second group is non-manual and includes all markers needed to articulate a sign which do not form part of manual markers. They are:

This difference is necessary when we want to specify the word we are referring to in spoken language. In sign language the sign is the same and the labial pattern disappears. This is the sign:


  1. Mouth: gestures formed with the mouth and cheeks as part of the phonological description of a sign. Thus for example, in LSC the sign “NO-HAVER-HI” (to not exist or to not have) must be accompanied by a movement of the mouth which could be reproduced as ‘ap’. Let’s see the video and practice:


  2. Lips: labial gesture related to the oral word corresponding to the sign. It is often used to distinguish between homonyms, i.e. signs with identical manual markers.


  3. Position of the eyebrows and forehead: eyebrows can be furrowed or raised, or in neutral position.
  4. Direction of the eyes.
  5. Position of the body.
  6. Position and/or movement of the head.
  7. Global facial expression.
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