In order to better understand the meaning of the concept of "words", I'm wondering if signed language has the concept of words, or if not, what their concept is for the "signs" they create (maybe they are just called signs instead of words, or "symbols").

I also would be interested to know what their equivalent of sentences are.

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    What has your research informed you about? The replace “word” with “sign” and the rest of the technical jargon fits fine. – Chase Ryan Taylor Oct 22 at 6:54
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    Even with spoken and written languages it's very hard to define a word (unless you just define it as "what you put spaces around"). We have prosodic units, morphological units, and syntactic units, which often but not always are aligned in some sort of regular system which we call "words". – curiousdannii Oct 22 at 9:18
up vote 6 down vote accepted

wondering if sign language has the concept of words,

The notion of "wordhood" is fluid enough that we can make either of the following claims:

  • a sign is equivalent to a word

  • a sign translates to a word, or a word translates to a sign (so then a word would be something that doesn't directly apply to sign languages)

  • a word consists of signs

  • a sign consists of words

Some of these notions are mutually exclusive, some are not. But, (and this goes for under-researched languages generally), importantly, what we're lacking is a precise definition of "word". And a precise definition of "sign" is lacking too. (that's not a shortcoming of your question, mind you!)

what their concept is for the "signs" they create (maybe they are just called signs instead of words, or "symbols").

So what about some examples?


Take the English word "champion". In Chinese, that's 擁護者, which is a verb, 擁護, and an agentive suffix 者.

In ASL that's two signs, champion and an agentive suffix.

Hang on, is it two signs? Well it's two morphemes, just like that Chinese word, and it's certainly two syllables, but we could easily say it's one word because agentive suffix can't stand on its own.


Take the English word interrogate. In Czech, that's "vyslýchat", and that's three morphemes. "vy-" means "out" (here in the sense of "extract", "-slých-" is to do with listening, and "-at" is infinitive.

You could render that in ASL as ask ask ask ask ask ask ask ask (I'm being serious!). That's definitely one word, and I suppose it's one sign as well, just reduplicated, alternating between left hand and right hand.


Take the English phrase "to get on a bicycle". In ASL, that might be bicycle get-onto-an-upright-vehicle. You could say that's two words, with the first one being "bicycle", and the second one being "getting onto an upright vehicle". But that second word/sign could be broken down further: The upright vehicle is a classifier (do this with your left hand) and getting on is a verb (do this with your right hand). And that's not the end of it: with your face you'll usually be indicating a tense or nominalisational morpheme, and you could be showing a perspective with your shoulders as well.

I just want to know if people who speak sign language actually use the terminology "word"

Only sometimes, and only loosely. And only hesitatingly, because "word" is a term which applies more readily to a typographical word (one which has letters in a row, and usually a space on either side). So not really.

So I hope I have shown you: signs are not words, nor are words signs. They don't translate directly to each other. But at least some of this is because we have a hard time pinning down exactly what a word or sign is.

Also would be interested to know what their equivalent of sentences are.

Now this is much easier to answer!

A sentence (as a discourse unit) is the same thing in all kinds of languages, spoken or signed.

In defining sentence as discourse unit, I'm including utterances like "well yeah..." and "hey! hey you!" and "why did the chicken cross the road?" Sign languages have exactly the same thing, and they are easily called sentences.

  • Still wondering if they actually use the word "word" to describe their signs in practice :D – Lance Pollard Oct 22 at 11:13
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    Yes, that is how I understood your question. I answered: Only sometimes, and only loosely. And only hesitatingly. You could interpret that as "not really". – Wilson Oct 22 at 11:16

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