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The other day, I was watching the weather channel, and, saw a sign language presenter signing.

The specific sign language was known to me (as, most likely, was the one corresponding to the language spoken (although, there could be more than one sign language for any given language, of course (in which case I would have to guess))).

But, besides this, and although it was a bit hard for me to follow, one particular sign struck me, so much that I wanted to look it up in a dictionary.

The presenter held their left hand at chest level, flat, with the palm pointing up, with the fingers joined and pointing to the right, and, above it, a right hand was placed, with the fingers joined, in the shape of a "C", or, perhaps, that if a shell, with the four long fingers in front and the thumb at the back, fingers and thumb of the right hand touching the palm of the left hand, ... and almost making a tightening grasping movement, although only slightly.

What I want to know, is, with this information describing the sign, and knowledge of the language spoken, how could I look this sign up in a dictionary (and, what such dictionaries are available, for example, on Android systems)?

It seems to me, that entering the described information, would or could be a bit comolex, and a complex lookup system would be needed, (similar, perhaps, to looking up Chinese characters in a Chinese dictionary via radicals).

In my particular case, the language is one of the sign languages spoken in Italy (but, because signs are widely used even across different languages with different meaning, and I am looking for an example, even a dictionary pertaining to another language would do (and I could, very enthusiastically, use it to decipher signs in that language).

Thank you for your help.

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  • Out of curiosity, why not use different sign-language to speech/text AI apps? Perhaps I am misunderstanding the question. Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 19:32
  • I don't know the answer, but Stokoe notation was devised for the first ASL dictionary, and that article has links to other notation systems which have been devised. But on a quick look I don't see a mention of many dictionaries.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 23:46
  • To my eyes, it looks like "believe" in ASL.
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 0:11

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You have just presented a use case for having a sign-based transcription system!

Such modern signwriting varies in terms of "cheremic / sign phonemic depth" and in "directionality" (linear vs 2D). The parameters needed for sign phonemes differ from oral phonemes, but like oral languages they may differ between sign languages. Any good description of sign phonology (whether a fully-fledged sign language or a sign interlanguage of an oral language) will go through these articulators e.g. see this for Signed Swedish vs Swedish Sign Language.

Such "phonological" contrasts are outlined in some of the seminal papers of the 1960s, e.g. configuration, attitude, motion, can be compared to the different classes of consonant, vowel, semivowel, duration, tone, phonation etc. in oral language.

The most developed sign writing systems are those for American Sign Language (ASL), e.g. SignWriting, Stokoe. SignWriting has been adapted for the phonology of other sign languages, e.g. Maltese Sign.

However, there is also a sign transcription system, designed to be an equivalent to IPA: HamNoSys (the Hamburg Notation System). There is a Deutsche Gebärdensprache (DGS) dictionary and corpus being produced with this HamNoSys as the transcription system.


In practice though, most of the 'sign language to oral language' dictionaries are feature-based, with the shape of the dominant hand being most prominent. I found your sign (which I think is the second part of the ASL for "believe") through Handspeak's ASL-English Dictionary, selecting "5-claw,C" (the shape of the dominant hand or "designator" in Stokoe notation), and "one-handed, moving", then trawling through the videos. I then confirmed it with YouTube, SpreadTheSign and with ASL-LEX, which has a way of connecting similar signs.

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