A phoneme is the smallest contrastive unit in the sound system of a language.


  • 2
    On a somewhat unrelated note, the equivalent of a phoneme in kinesics (i.e. body language) is a kineme.
    – Evpok
    Sep 17, 2011 at 7:54

7 Answers 7


First, “Definitions of phoneme” in the context of a spoken language is not unanimous. SIL's definition above is good, but if the language has no sound system, do like Steven says, find the contrastive units. But there are problems.

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Here are two ASL signs formed by putting a pointer finger on the forehead and moving it sideways, where bending the finger at the end changes the meaning. Each sign consists of an initial position, a movement and a final position. The contrastive feature is the +/- bent finger in the final segment.

The modern notion of a phoneme is a temporal segment, so one can't say the finger, or just the handshape is a phoneme, we have to include the entire feature bundle: orientation;palm down, location;forehead, and everything else that happens simultaneously in that segment, would all be included as one phoneme. With around a hundred contrastive handshapes, and the same number of locations, plus orientation, movement and facial expressions, there would be literally millions of such “phonemes”, and this sort of defeats the purpose of having them.

If one takes an older, Bloomfieldian definition of “phoneme” any contrastive element counts (e.g. Chinese tones), so just the bent index finger alone would be a “phoneme”. But that's even worse!

Mostly, phoneme theory has nothing to offer sign linguistics, and every model of signed structure is feature-based and uses autosegmental or other non-linear phonology. Upshot is, no phonemes in signed languages.


Well there aren't phonemes in signed languages because phonemes are specifically sounds.

But if you're asking whether signed languages have an equivalent of phonemes then indeed they do, and they are called cheremes.

Then again the Wikipedia article on cherology, while a bit thin, actually does seem to say that the term phoneme was formerly used even in the context of signed languages prior to 1960 when the terms were coined.

Even as linguists we can forget that meanings can drift away from etymologies (-:

No sooner had I mentioned the drift than user mmoosman pointed out that cherology and chereme have fallen out of favour once more with phonology and phoneme now covering both spoken and signed languages once more.

  • 5
    Linguists in the field of sign language really don't use the terms cherology or chereme anymore. The preference is to use phonology and phoneme.
    – mmoosman
    Sep 18, 2011 at 18:12
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    That is true that cherology, chereme and allocher have fallen out of use, but the terms are useful to demonstrate that signed languages are both different and parallel to spoken or written languages. There even exist terms such as grapheme and allograph for written language. Sep 20, 2011 at 4:03
  • @Daniel: Yes it seems that phoneme was used initially then chereme was coined and had some use before falling back out of favour once more. But I didn't know the last part when I answered and as the rest is here in another answer I'll let mine stand as part of the record (-: Sep 20, 2011 at 14:10

Is there a specific question about whether a particular candidate can be considered a phoneme in sign language? Perhaps if you frame your question in terms of the research you've already done on the field (and it doesn't take much to start), people can build on that. That way, you can take advantage of the diverse array of backgrounds here to help you arrive at new knowledge. I feel the way the question is phrased now, it might be banking entirely on one of the 50-or-so private beta-ists on knowing sign language phonology, which might be unlikely.

That being said, what a phoneme is is no different in sign language than in natural language. The fact that word phoneme is derived from a root meaning sound doesn't affect the more abstract meaning that it's taken in academic linguistics. It's the underlying representation of a minimally contrastive unit. If changing the location of a gesture and nothing else changes the semantic meaning produced (in ASL, and all other full sign languages as far as I know), then each location (or some more abstract construct that includes or influences location) is mutually contrastive. If changing the hand shape and unilaterally change the semantic meaning, then each of those shapes are mutually contrastive.

Once we know all the mutually contrastive locations, movements, and hand shapes (and other things), we discover relationships between them and rely on native speaker intuition to wean this down into a candidate list of phonemes, whose compositions can deterministically produce every word in the lexicon.

  • 1
    When you say "a phoneme is is no different in sign language than in natural language", are you intending to imply that sign languages are not natural?
    – TRiG
    Jan 6, 2017 at 21:38

Historically, signed phonemes were considered to fall into 4 (or 5 depending on who you ask) categories that are sometimes called parameters. These are handshape, location, movement, palm orientation, and non-manual markers. Interestingly, every sign must have at least one of each of these parameters. The parameters are made up of features (handshape includes selected fingers, abduction, flexion etc.). This video shows some examples of minimal pairs of each parameter. The parameters are useful to an extent, but are somewhat outdated. Newer theories recognize that there is an awful lot of simultaneity in sign language (a single handshape can span multiple locations, for example), and have begun appealing to an autosegmental perspective. This is similar to the treatment of tone in tonal languages like Chinese where a single tone can span several segments. I wouldn't go so far as to say that there are no sign phonemes, but the degree of non-linearity in sign language certainly does challenge traditional ideas about the phoneme.


I'm not an expert (or even a linguist), and my knowledge on this point is at least 10 years out of date (learning about ASL linguistics in high school from my dad who's an ASL interpreter). But one system for phonemes in ASL is based on location, movement, and handshape. For example, the "A" handshape can be done either with the base of the thumb touching the side of the hand or with the thumb sticking further out, and either is the same phoneme. Whereas, if you put the thumb in front of the hand (the "S" handshape) that's a different phoneme. Similarly, the difference in location between upper arm and lower arm is phonemic, but the exact location on the upper arm is not. Wikipedia has some more detail.


Back in the 70s Peter A. Reich of UToronto did a paper entitled Visible distinctive features focused on finger spelling. I think a written version appeared in an early issue of the LACUS Forum. I'll check when I return to my library in about a week.

  • Usually the first thing you learn about sign languages when you start reading about them is that finger spelling is not really what signing is about at all. Basically because you finger spell English but sign ASL etc which might not be even remotely related. Sep 23, 2011 at 20:51
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    @hippietrail. Some fingerspellings find their way into the language. I believe that in Irish SL, the signs for dog, bus, and who are all derived from fingerspellings (but, as signs, they're spelled so fast that they're barely parseable as spellings anymore: they're independent signs which derive from spellings).
    – TRiG
    Sep 23, 2011 at 21:03
  • @TRiG: Ah yes I do remember reading that too, I think in regards to Auslan. I'm not sure it would have a lot to do signed phonemes but you never know. There could be a very good question in it! Sep 23, 2011 at 21:06

Phonemes are the minimal contrastive linguistic unit along the syntagmatic axis; think of a string of units listed sequentially. Phonemes themselves are comprised of features, and this is within the paradigmatic axis; think of one position on the syntagmatic axis and see what it is like on the inside. Sign language phonology has not yet availed itself of this distinction with regard to the sign language phoneme.

  • "Allophone" is something that "phoneme' is supposed to explain away. What does "allophone" mean in the context of sign language?
    – user6726
    Jan 6, 2017 at 21:37
  • An allophone is the physical expression of the phoneme in a particular phonetic context. A particular phoneme (which is a mental construct) is express phonetically one way in one phonetic context (being one allophone) and slightly differently in a different phonetic context (being a different allophone). These two allophones are physical expressions of the same phoneme. For sign languages, some movement phonemes have been found to have allophones that are predictable based on the posture of the forearm or the position of the fingers (Hansen 2006 doctoral dissertation).
    – Kathy H.
    Jan 6, 2017 at 21:47
  • Given that, I don't understand the last sentence in your answer.
    – user6726
    Jan 6, 2017 at 22:12
  • I was just trying to provide an example of allophones of a single phoneme without getting into detail. I guess that didn't work! The point is that we have been able to analyze some phonetic aspects of sign language as allophones of phonemes. That is, there are phonetic differences but they are predictable, so they're actually the same phoneme.
    – Kathy H.
    Jan 8, 2017 at 3:28

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