In every spoken language I'm aware of, if you read a word you are unfamiliar with, you can generally work out how to pronounce the word from how it's written. You can sound it out.

Is this kind of thing possible with American Sign Language? If no, is it possible in any sign language? Is it possible to figure out how to sign a new word by "signing it out" analogous to how a speaker would "sound it out"?

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    I don't understand the question. Are you asking if you know how to literally pronounce a sign if you see it? Or: are you asking if there is a standard written form s.t. signers know how to produce a new sign? If the latter, then no not yet since there is no standard writing system.
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 3:46
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    Also are you not aware of Chinese or Japanese? Egyptian hieroglyphics? There are actually lots of languages which you can't effectively sound out a high proportion of words.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 4:19
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    Are you asking whether ASL is written phonetically? Most of the time, it isn't written at all, but all the proposed writing systems are phonetic.
    – TRiG
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 10:33
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    "I had forgotten Egyptian, but I know Japanese is phonetic when written in Romanji" ← any spoken language "is phonetic" in the sense you mean when written in a phonetic (or, phonemic) system, and such a system can be made to exist for every spoken language. But Japanese isn't normally written in that system. Maybe this point is part of your question as to the existence of a difference with ASL? You really should clarify: as others have told you, ASL isn't normally written. Are you asking about written ASL (using some convention), or are you thinking written English can be turned into ASL?
    – LjL
    Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 0:31
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    "In every spoken language I'm aware of, if you read a word you are unfamiliar with, you can generally work out how to pronounce the word from how it's written." This isn't even remotely true in english. Please read the classic The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité. English has a paricular weak phoneme-grapheme correlation.
    – Polygnome
    Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 15:33

9 Answers 9


Do you mean can you know how to sign a word in American Sign Language by reading it in English? Well no, because the two languages are not really that similar. Sign languages are not transformations of the local spoken language, they are independent fully formed languages with their own vocabularies and grammars. ASL is actually part of the French Sign Language family.

There is a thing called Manually Coded English which is a way of signing the English language. This can involve borrowing some signs from sign languages, making up new signs, and finger spelling. But even Signed English has different incompatible forms, based on the sign language of the area: ASL and BANZSL (the sign language of the UK/Australia/New Zealand) are not related, and only share about 40% of signs (and they only have that much in common because of borrowings, not because they descend from one language like English and French from Indo-European) and have different finger spelling systems. So not only could deaf people from the US and the UK not understand each without first learning the other's sign language, they also could not communicate through Signed English.

People who speak ASL as their first language often learn to read English as a second language, with all the difficulties faced by other second language learners.


It appears you are (implicitly) asking about Sutton Sign Writing. If you don't know the system, obviously you can't learn a new sign. It's not clear how many signers know the system, but it appears that, in principle, the system is capable of symbolising any sign in any manual language, so that a monolingual ASL dictionary could be possible.

  • I thought the question was about reading a word in English, e.g. an ordinary book, newspaper, or website. Not some special writing system tailored to ASL users.
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 22:42
  • I read the question as making the (unwaranted, but common) assumption, that written language is part of language, and unthinkingly transferring that assumption to ASL.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 28 at 19:44

I think part of the issue here is that you’re comparing ASL - which has several non-concatenative (I.e. simultaneous) elements - to spoken languages, which have more limitations as far as that’s concerned and are typically concatenative (I.e. linear). Phonologically, a sign has 4 elements: handshape (the configuration your fingers and hand make), movement, palm orientation, location (and in practice, non-manual markers, but that’s a whole conversation in its own right), and due to the physical nature of them, they all happen at the same time (save for dynamic signs, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll ignore that here). That is to say, I couldn’t do a handshape, then the movement, then the location, then the palm orientation - that’s not how bodily mechanics work. Theoretically, someone learning a sign could go “okay, it has an A handshape, palm orientation is facing across the body, moving up and down, located in neutral space making contact with the other palm which is facing upwards with a B handshape.” In practice, doing that much examination is more complicated than seeing a sign and copying what they do, though some element of that could be included in making adjustments during learning.

As previous respondents mentioned, ASL and other sign languages don’t have a standard writing system - there have been a few systems created with that intent, but never really took off save for small groups of people here and there, and those are often teachers or linguists. The vast majority of signers don’t know those systems, and many have never even heard of them.

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    I think spoken languages have a lot of "simultaneous" elements too if you just break them down in an appropriate way: namely, each phone(me) has a few individual features that can be seen as actions performed simultaneously: is it voiced? Then the vocal cords are moving. Is it a stop? Then the tongue or lips are moving. Is it nasal? Then whatever the thing is that decides whether the airway to the nose is open or closed does its thing. And then some languages have a variety of airstream mechanisms. And although featural alphabets aren't widespread, Hangul is sort of featural and nice to learn.
    – LjL
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 19:09


Phonemes in English are distinct, unique sounds which sometimes-to-often correspond with letters or combinations of letters.

Instead, elements of signed language include: hand shape, location, movement, pauses, palm orientation, facial expression, and body movement.

You cannot determine how to produce a sign by reading an English word. You learn new signs by seeing someone sign them and copying the sign for yourself.

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    "Phonemes are letters"? You probably meant that as a shortcut for something more elaborate, but, as stated, that's just false.
    – LjL
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 19:10

Sign language communicates concepts not sounds. Sounds do not have any meaning in language of Deaf.

However it is possible to communicate word equivalents through language components- for example stringing English alphabet letters together to literally Express an English word - this is called fingerspelling.

The OP seems to have the mistaken idea that sign language is an alternate system to Express and receive English...its not


Let's start from the top. Spoken languages are, by definition, phonetic. They work through sounds, so obviously they are sound-based.

But even tough that's the case, it took millenia to move from symbol-based writing to phonetic writing, and some languages retain ther symbol-based writing systems (like e.g. Chinese).

Phonetic writing systems have the big advantage, that you don't need to learn a separate written language, but only the transcription rules and some exceptions.

Sign languages are languages that developed seperately from spoken languages (they weren't designed, they "just happened", like spoken languages). The areas where they are spoken differ widely from the areas where spoken languages are spoken. For example, even though UK and USA both use English as their main language, ASL (American Sign Language) and BSL (British Sign Language) aren't even related.

On the other hand, ÖGS (signed in Austria) is close to LSF (signed in France) and rather dissimilar to DGS (signed in Germany), even though Austria and Germany both use German, which is not at all related to French.

Since there is no link between spoken and sign language, there is no concept of phonetics there. Instead, sign language uses the medium that it has to its fullest extent. Signers usually use both hands, their facial expression and their body language at the same time to convey multiple bits of information at the same time. It's often the case that a sentence in spoken language is equivalent to just 1-2 signs plus modifiers.

In that aspect, sign language is much closer to a symbol-based writing system than a phonetics based one.

Hence, there are some writing systems for sign languages that convey hand and face movements instead of phonetics.

That said, there is a single part of sign languages that actually is phonetic, and that's the finger alphabet, where one sign corresponds to a letter in the alphabet. This is mostly used for things that have no associated sign, e.g. names of companies, towns or train stations.

And since the finger alphabet's purpose is to literally convey spoken (or actually written) language in sign language, it is phonetic.


Well are y are you asking if you can guess a sign this meaning based on what it looks like, because there are certain things called classifiers, that can help you, as a beginner signer, understand the nature of what's being talked about. For example for water dripping, you would sign water first and then Shake Your Hand with the Palm inward(ring finger is the bottom finger) in a rotated w shape mimicking the dripping of a water faucet. You could not know that the second sign means dripping but you could figure it out based on the context, and the nature of the classifier (along with NMMs). But signs arent inherently "intuitive".

  • If Im explaining this awfully someone let me know and clarify
    – Jack
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 22:37
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    I think the question is asking about the other direction: You read an unfamiliar word in the newspaper, can you figure out how to sign it?
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 22:40
  • Ahhh! Hm. Yeah thats not an equal conversion there.
    – Jack
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 22:40
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    That wasn't what I was asking, but it IS interesting.
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 22:49

This version of written ask is pretty phonetic.

Screenshot from a video



Yes. ASL are, like all languages (by definition) phonetic. (This stackoverflow answer gives a pretty good overview of what is required for something to be a language: https://linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/3214/22825)

The rest of your question is asking something very different though, name whether you can understand pronunciation of a sign by reading it. In the general case the answer to this is no – but only because most sign languages do have a (commonly accepted) written form.

Writing: There exist a few writing systems (Si5s, ASLwrite, and Sutton SignWriting to mention a few) and also several transcription systems (Stokoe notation for American Sign Language, Bergman notation for Swedish Sign Language, and HamNoSys, intended for use for any sign language). – The difference between transcription systems and writing systems are in their use: transcription is a detailed phonetic system used mostly by researchers, while writing is usually less detailed and focused on everyday use.

All of the above mentioned writing and transcription systems can be read in the way you suggest. There are symbols indicating, location, attitude, handshape etc, and as you read a word you see how to pronounce it.

Gloss: There is also a different way to write sign language, often used by researchers, which is called "gloss". In this way of writing one write signs by using English (usually capitalized) words (these words do not always match exactly, but that's beside my point here).


This type of writing "system" is not phonetic, because you have to know each gloss, and which sign it represents.

  • Downvoters, please include add a comment with your reason as to why.
    – zrajm
    Commented May 30 at 21:21

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