Understanding Classifiers

I’ve noticed throughout my sessions that ASL classifiers is one area that ASL students struggle with understanding. I think some Deaf signers struggle with defining them too. We know them and use them – but when explaining them to others we’re at a loss.

First, the definition of Classifer, as related to ASL, is a designated handshapes and/or rule-specific body gestures used to represent nouns and verbs. The classifier is used to show more information about nouns and verbs such as their location, the kind of action, and its size, shape or manner. The ASL sign used for Classifier is simple fingerspelling C-L.


So, let’s learn all about Classifiers!

There are 4 main characteristics of a Classifier, summed up are:

  1. Things - Objects, people, animals, vehicles, etc.
  2. Shapes - Outlines, perimeters, surfaces, configurations, gradients, etc.
  3. Size - Amount, largeness, smallness, relative size, volume, etc.
  4. Usage – Movement paths, speed, interactions, etc.


Let’s look at some popular Classifiers:

You remember we use CL, now the number or letter that follows is the handshape used for that Classifier.

CL: 1

The “1” handshape is used to describe long and thin objects like: pencil, stick, and pole. Also used to describe one person: walking, or standing in a location.

CL: 3

The “3” handshape is usually used to describe vehicles (except boats and airplanes). Used to show how a car is driving along (hilly road), stopping, a crash, and so on.

CL: 4

The “4” handshape is used to describe a “group of things” in a certain way. Such as a long line of people, rows of chairs, lines on paper or clothes, or an object that’s spread out, like a handfan.


The “V” handshape can describe either 2 people together, or how one’s legs are moving. Other words include: standing, walking together, lying down, skateboarding, get-up, fall-down.


The “B” handshape is used to describe flat things. Such as shelves, countertops, roads, floors, walls. It can also mean a very wide (but flat) object moving (such as a large truck driving along).


You can check out this Classifier DVD for a more in-depth explanation. But for now, check out these captioned YouTube videos:

Classifiers Part 1

Classifiers Part 2


I hope this article helped you to understand how Classifiers are used in a variety of ways. Start a session with our Deaf Ambassadors and practice using them!