Given that there is a difference between phonetics and phonology, and that in the study of signed languages cherology is the counterpart to phonology, are there also counterparts to phones and phonetics within the study of signed languages?

I checked for the term "chenetics" and it doesn't seem to be used. Could it be that the study of signed language is simply too small and specialized to separate the two. Or perhaps the majority of study of signed languages is only concerned with a single language?

3 Answers 3


Signed languages don't have counterparts to phones and phonetics, they have phones and phonetics. We quit using “chereme” because it was found to be inaccurate. Stokoe (1965) coined the term for the combinatorial parts of signs in his original analysis—location, handshape and movement—and these have since been taken as “phonemes” of signed language, but this is a misconception. Phonemes are temporal segments; location, handshape and movement happen at the same time, so cheremes and phonemes were two different things.

If we were to use “chereme” to replace a word used with speech, the word would be “parameter”, Phonemes are described in terms of parameters, e.g. place, manner, voicing ... that are satisfied by specific phonetic features, and Stokoe's parameters are basically the same.
Place or Location—in the mouth or on the body; Configuration—of the articulator, hand shape or tongue shape; Manner—of movement, mainly.

The phonetic features that fulfill these parameters occur simultaneously in bundles: English /L/ = {alveolar, lateral, aproximant}; ASL “black” = {forehead, index finger, move sideways}. A narrow phonetic description of the sign would include a [+/- bent] feature for each finger; if I produced that sign, you would see a phone.

A lot of research has been done on this. Besides the M&H Model of sign phonology, several others are
Hand Tier Model, Sandler & Lillo-Martin 2006,
Dependency Model, van der Hulst 1993,
Prosodic Model, Brentari, 1998



The terms Cherology and Chereme have largely been dropped in favor of the common terms Phonology and Phoneme.

Scott Liddell and Robert Johnson have developed a system refered to as the Movement Hold Model which separates signs into a series of movements and holds. An individual movement or hold is the equivalent to a vocal language phoneme.

Each movement or hold then consists of features which are made up of (basically) palm orientation, location, handshape and non-manual markers.

Of course this is a very simplistic answer for a more complicated theory. I'm not finding a web site reference for this, but Liddell/Johnson have been publishing some articles in Sign Language Studies starting with Volume 11 Number 2 Winter 2011 which go into this model in depth. They are absolutely worth reading.

I also know that this model is discussed in Linguistics of American Sign Langauge by Clayton Valli, Ceil Lucas & Kristin J Mulrooney.

  • This would be a great answer to What is a phoneme in the context of a signed language? which asks about sign phonemes/phonology but this question asks about sign phones/phonetics. Do you think it works for both? Sep 18, 2011 at 18:47
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    I do think this works for both. The phonetics is going to be simply the study of the the physical parts of the movements or holds. i.e. What is the location/hand shape/palm orientation/non-manual marker(s) of each part of the sign. The distinction between a phone and a phoneme as I understand it is that a phone is specific to a particular utterance while a phoneme is more generalizable. The Movement Hold Model allows for the description of a movement or hold either within or ourside of context.
    – mmoosman
    Sep 18, 2011 at 19:28
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    The way the theory is setup a hold consists of features like palm orientation, location etc. Most of these featues also exist on movements, but there are different kinds of movements.
    – mmoosman
    Sep 22, 2011 at 1:26
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    I'm not sure I can adequately answer this in 600 characters. This sounds like a great question all on it's own though, and I'd love to answer it if you'd like to post it that way. Basically, I'll just say that the way the theory is setup it establishes holds and movements as separate parts of a sign, and each have distinct features. There are different sorts of movements, and the movement types would be a feature. Other features are things like handshape and palm orientation. I tend to look at holds as consonants and movements as vowels, but I don't know how accurate that is.
    – mmoosman
    Sep 22, 2011 at 1:56
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    I should also mention that Liddell and Johnson are currently doing work which more accurately defines these features (The prevsiously mentioned articles in Sign Language Studies). Movement in particular is being defined in more than one way. Under this system, there would be movement phonemes which have different kinds of movement features.
    – mmoosman
    Sep 24, 2011 at 15:16

The Hamburg Sign Language Notation System, also abbreviated as HamNoSys is considered to be analogous to the IPA for spoken languages. There is a guide for it that I found but I'm not sure it's the most complete one. If I find a better one I'll add it.

The HamNoSys is not intended to be a pratical writing system (it's actually evolving currently being at its 3rd revision), unlike the SignWriting or the Stokoe notation; you can see about the differences between these two systems in this page.

  • Oops your answer is about transcription rather than whether there are equivalent concepts to phones/phonetics in signed language study. Sep 17, 2011 at 10:52
  • I'm getting into that, but I'm starting to think there really isn't a real equivalent as there is a Cherology and cheremes for Phonology and phonemes. Everything leads back to the systems above. If I find something I'll make sure to edit the answer. :)
    – Alenanno
    Sep 17, 2011 at 10:55
  • I don't think there is either but hopefully we can find some experts that know for sure one way or the other. Sep 17, 2011 at 11:10

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