18.7 Classifiers

English Notes
BSL Video


When we consider proforms, it is also worth discussing classifiers, because proforms are among those signs that contain classifiers. Examples of this are, CAKE ('5' hand), PLATE ('B' hand), and many other signs.

Classifiers are found in many languages, not only in sign languages. In the broadest sense, they label referents as belonging to a particular group, such as referents that share the same shape, are living or dead, or are male, etc. French uses le and la to classify nouns' referents as masculine or feminine. English does not have many classifiers, but there are some examples like sheet of paper,piece of fruit, head of cattle, stick of wood,or blade of grass. All these words put the noun referents into certain classes. Similarly, a suffix can be added at the end of a word to add more information. For example, the suffix 'ess' can be added to the ends of words such as, stewardess, hostess, actress, etc., and means female. This is an example of classifier use.

Some other spoken languages make more use of classifiers, such as Chinese and many South American languages. In one South American Indian language ma-mamak means "banana" and ma-kanu means "canoe". At first glance these two referents do not appear to belong to a common category, but people with an interest in sign linguistics often quickly spot that canoes and bananas have a similar shape, so the language uses the classifier ma for both nouns. All the classifiers mentioned above are "noun classifiers".


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