Finding aids for locating signs in films and books

Historically, signs were identified by the use of an English word representation or GLOSS and often accompanied by a description of the form of the sign and its etymology. To better capture the historical significance of these annotations as well as access data across databases, GLOSSES are used for word search functions.

There are three routes to view a sample of signs in our collection. To assist with the search, we have included in the database the following finding aids.

1) Viewing Films
The Films tab allows you access to the films, the GLOSS transcriptions of the sign language in the film, and English translations of what is on the films. Contextual information about the films and dictionaries, including: titles, biographical information about the authors and master signers, and an outline of each film is available in each database. Also included are specifications about production date and length of each film. Most of this information came from the Gallaudet University Archives.

The films can be accessed via continuous viewing of a single film, or as individual segments within a film via Token Search results across films and dictionaries. For instruction on how to access and interpret the early films in the HSLDB, go to the Film Guide.

2) Browsing Through Books
The Books tab allows you access to scanned pages and individual entries with notes from each dictionary. Each entry has been assigned an SLRL Reference Gloss to link related dictionary and film signs through a common and unique identifier for each sign entry.

For help and instruction on navigating and interpreting the Book information in the HSLDB, go to the Books Guide.

3) Searching Sign Tokens
Searching for a particular gloss for a sign within the HSLDB will provide a cross-referenced listing of all tokens that appear in the NAD Films and the three early ASL Dictionaries published during the same era. The Sign Token Search is the tool for viewing all instances (or tokens) of a selected sign in the dictionaries and NAD films. The sign tokens are stored and located by the Reference Gloss designed within our lab to link related data through a common and unique identifier for each sign. When you enter an English search term in the Sign Token Search box, you will be taken to a page that lists all tokens in both film and dictionary sources. This page will also allow you to click and view the actual dictionary descriptions and film clips in which that sign appears.

For help and instruction on navigating and interpreting the Sign Token Search function in the HSLDB, go to the Sign Tokens Search Guide.

Using glosses and formational symbols in sign language transcription

Today researchers and educators typically CAPITALIZE a sign gloss to set it apart from English words or from other descriptive information about the sign. The database contains annotation of sign language features within and beyond this lexical level. The categories of sign formation documented include: sign type values about the general formation of the sign, pro-form & determiner values, classifier values, specific hand values, specific location values, specific path direction values, body orientation values, manner of movement values, number morpheme values, and aspectual morpheme values.

Our transcriptions of such information were based on descriptive conventions used by Baker & Cokely, and Mikos, Lentz & Smith plus a few developed in house. A range of issues were encountered that necessitated revision of the original glossing conventions resulting in the current set of criteria that takes into consideration historical roots of modern signs while attempting to maintain glosses that the researcher will recognize today.

Criteria for Gloss Selection and Categorization
Our procedure involved the viewing of a film text first to determine its gist followed by a sentence-by-sentence or phrase-by-phrase rough glossing of each sign. Gloss selection was based on the combination of 1918 & 1923 dictionary glosses and current generally accepted glosses for most signs. For signs that seemed to be precursors to several current forms, a more generic gloss was selected. The rough transcription then was expanded and refined by the addition of more specific morphophonemic information such as beginning and ending location of an inflected sign while re-viewing the film. Several considerations were used to form the remaining transcriptions including meaning, accuracy, and language of the day.

In the current database, a gloss is selected to uniquely identify a form. A modern gloss is used when it is more readily understood than the older dictionary gloss. When an older gloss from the 1918 and/or 1923 dictionaries is readily understandable today and uniquely identifies the form, the older gloss will be retained as the reference gloss. Glosses reflect characteristics of the Sign Type Category they represent.

The categories we established were:
- Lexemes are defined by our lab as single signs without readily recognizable meaning components.
- Indicating signs represent signs such as pronominal forms and determiners.
- Borrowings refer to signs with an English word referent including coarticulated fingerspelled forms as well as proper nouns. This category does not include fingerspelled words that do not show coarticulation effects.
- Gestural forms have more transparent connections with their iconic roots and may serve as precursors to more than one modern lexeme. Also included are nonmanual poses or postures.
- Classifier forms can be modified productively to represent an action related to a noun, its size and/or shape, or its state or location.
- Word Phrases are concepts represented by a traditional collocation of two or more signs/words.

The establishment of the six general categories of signs in the Early ASL Database helped us to code prosodic differences and trace historical relationships between signs and their forms. The database also includes annotation showing the prosodic contours of a group of signs, indicating by a symbol (~) that they comprise a multi-sign unit.

Help understanding and interpreting this annotation can be found in the Symbol guide and the Symbol key.


Two transcription keys in the appendix also provide information on each transcription symbol included in the HSLDB. One key is organized in alphabetical order for quick reference. A second key is organized into linguistic categories for the various structures and functions of language, for those who are familiar with grammatical concepts and would like to know how these are represented in the HSLDB.