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Linguists, awaken. Here's a transplant

American Sign Language (ASL) has something called a classifier. Most English-speakers aren't aware these exist because they are mostly dead in our language (since long before the Dark Ages). In spoken language, a classifier is a morpheme (syllable or letter combination) you can add to a word to "classify" its semantic class, verb type, shape, orientation, etc.

For example, in Brandonese (made up language), suppose the following suffixes (also applies to prefixes and infixes) existed:

-li means vertically-oriented tall and skinny
-la means vertically-oriented short and stocky
-pi means horizontally-oriented long and skinny
-pa means horizontally-oriented short and thick
and finally, the word for a stone pillar is kolo

If I visited a decimated Greek temple, I could say in Brandonese that I saw many "kolola and kolopi" but few "kololi and kolopa." You'd understand I meant that most skinny columns were on their side while most thicker columns were still standing.

In ASL, there are classifers that describe objects that are saliently flat (both 2D and 3D), rounded (with various sizes from 2-inces to about 3-feet in diameter), arching, rough, tall and skinny, vehicular, four-legged, etc, etc. This makes the language extremely visual in a very small number of movements.

I could say using one classifier and a little body movement (note I never used a sign) that a car sped down a winding road at those New England 12% grades and swerved off to the left side of the road and rolled four times.




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Wow, my post was getting long. I should practice that time-honored laconic tradition of shutting up and getting to the point. With the classifer issue (cloudily) on the table, can anybody think of some good English classifiers?

I know that the sn- prefix used to classify the nose (snicker, sneeze, snoop, snot, etc.) and that the gl- prefix used to classify light (glimmer, glare, glory, etc.) Others?

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some good English classifiers?

I think any of the examples you mentioned are leftovers from long before we called our language English. They probably date back to something like Proto-IndoEuropean or even earlier (we need a real linguist on this forum). This reminds me of the way some languages treat what we laughingly refer to as gender (no relation to sex at all, just a way of categorizing different objects). These languages might have one gender for long thin objects, another for round objects and still another for flat objects.


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Brandon, you have instilled in me a fervent desire to learn ASL - what you've described is just incredibly fascinating to me.

Now, you say that you could communicate that complex tale about the perils of driving in New England (as a native Bostonian, I know such points are important to communicate). And you say you could communicate it without using a sign. I don't want to quibble over how ASL denotes its various components, but I want to be sure I understand - the classifiers are communicated via signed language, right? Is there such a clear distinction between them and the actual signs?

In the very clever and clear Brandonese example you've given, the suffixes seem as if they'd be meaningless without the base word (that is "li" wouldn't really communicate anything, but "kololi" presents a clear image). But in ASL, it seems that the suffixes can stand alone. How is it that the suffixes (i.e. the classifiers) can communicate concepts like "car" and "road," which seem like they'd be the base words to which suffixes would attach?

Finally, at the risk of seeming over-literal - please tell me that there is not a classifier for "New England," and that that part of your example was meant more figuratively. If it existed, would it be a koloNE? (not since the Revolution, I guess)

Post-finally - the only thing that comes to mind that even vaguely resembles a classifier comes from Spanish. When one wishes to emphasize a particular quality about something, one adds the prefix "re-" to the adjective, so something that is really bueno is rebueno, and beans that have been cooked a long time are refritos (not refried, as it's typically translated). But this simply adds emphasis to the base word, it doesn't change its nature or provide more information about it.


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one adds the prefix "re-" to the adjective, so something that is really bueno is rebueno

Comes from the Latin prefix re- which was an intensifier. The repetition meaning that we English speakers seem to have assigned to it was a special case. But then as I understand there is a way in ASL of indicating that something is repeated rather than done just once.


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I understand there is a way in ASL of indicating that something is repeated rather than done just once.

In ASL (like many other languages, none Western, though), repetition and plurality is often shown through reduplication. To sign that there were two cups on the table, you could sign TWO CUP or you could just sign CUP twice to indicate plurality.

Maybe there is reduplication in English. What does the Eastern prison Sing Sing translate as from its native language (isn't it Native American?)? Any examples of reduplication in English?

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A classifier in ASL is like the -li in spoken language: it is a smaller component that adds meaning. In ASL, I "classify" the vehicle by using a specific handshape. I then manipulate the handshape in a variety of ways (movement, palm orientation) and manipulate my body and face to provide meaning.

I suppose you could say I used the sign for CAR because I used the classifier for a car, but linguists would argue that one should keep the two groups separate. Widely swinging the CAR classifier shows the winding road. A Widened eyes, an O-shaped mouth, and the jerking of the CAR convey speed. The body also swings with the CAR, and when it rolls off a cliff, the CAR rolls and the body shadows its movement. I threw in the NE 12% as extraneous info.

The classifier doesn't mean much of anything unless it is manipulated or used somehow. If I purely showed you the classifier CAR, there wouldn't be any meaning assigned to it. Even if I wanted to communicate that the car existed and nothing else (Latin erat), I would need to add a certain type of movement to convey that "being."

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examples of reduplication in English

Teeter-totter or see-saw, supposedly from its continuous back and forth motion.


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I suppose you could say I used the sign for CAR because I used the classifier for a car, but linguists would argue that one should keep the two groups separate

Sounds almost like a polysynthetic language.


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I suppose you could say I used the sign for CAR because I used the classifier for a car

I promise I will let this issue rest soon, but I've got another question: does the above mean that there are unique classifiers for particular attributes of a car (e.g. a long car, a short car), which are distinct from, say, the classifiers for a stone column? I had assumed the classifiers would be common to all base words. That is, that there would be a single classifier for "tall" and it would be applied to trees, people, kolos, etc.

I think I'll go to the link you gave now.


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