I just noted that there exists a whole literature on Sign Language. I didn't even know there existed more than one... It's very interesting now. :)

I then found computers can already interpret some sign language. Do these languages have the property to have ambiguity in them? That is, exists there a chain of signs (or a sentence) that can be interpreted in one or more possible ways by the computer?

  • Also, are you asking something like "Do Sign Languages have a context-free grammar"? Mar 12, 2012 at 22:28
  • 1
    @OtavioMacedo: A context-free grammar can be unambiguous too, and whether or not sign language can be represented as a CFG has no bearing on whether sign languages exhibit ambiguity.
    – jogloran
    Mar 12, 2012 at 23:22

1 Answer 1


Signs from ASL that have two unrelated meanings and thus are lexically ambiguous: 1) “nation / of course”, 2) “booth / person” 3) “everything / involve” . You can see pictures of them on page 130 of Emmorey, Karen. (2002). Language, cognition and the brain: insights from sign language research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lexical ambiguity is rife in signing but hard to explain in English (a lot of it is bilingual puns). A good source is Sutton-Spence, Rachael (2005) Analysing Sign Language Poetry. NY:Palgrave-MacMillan. Chapter 6 is entirely devoted to the subject of ambiguity in signed languages.

A somewhat accessible example is the genre of ABC stories, where the hand shapes are letters of the alphabet and at the same time signs that tell a story. You can see one in this video, with the English letters corresponding to the hand shapes shown on the screen, and you should be able to guess what the story is about.

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