KNSL Phonology

Words like "phonetics" and "phonology" can apply to signed languages. This might seem like a controversial claim, if you're unfamiliar with sign language research, but I can assure you it's no longer controversial in linguistics (or no more so than anything else is [which, admittedly, isn't saying much]).

This section will be divided into three major sections: Handshape, Place and Movement. The phonetics, phonology and romanization of each of these facets of the language will be discussed entirely within each section. Then at the end I'll kind of bring them all together.


Handshape

This section is devoted to the handshapes of KNSL. In it, you'll find a list of what handshapes there are, what their distribution is, and how they're romanized.


The Handshapes of KNSL

  Closed 1 Finger 2 Fingers 3 Fingers 4 Fingers
Thumb Curled A, S G, I N, U, Ŷ M, W 4, B
Thumb Hidden Ë Ï  
Thumb Protruding E L, Y Ÿ   5, C
Thumb Touching O     6, 7, 8, F  
Thumb Crossed T K      

As you can probably gather, the handshapes are grouped according to how many non-thumb fingers are protruding, and according to what the thumb is doing. [Note: To see what particular handshapes these symbols refer to, go here.] Here are some notes on the above:

  • KNSL makes a distinction between a series of hidden handshapes and non-hidden handshapes that is rather unusual. Thus, you have the following pairs of hidden vs. non-hidden handshapes: [Ë]/[A]; [Ï]/[I]; [Ḟ]/[F]. These handshapes are phonemic (though a couple just barely), and can be contrasted, as shown with the following near minimal pair (in SLIPA): [Ïf(a)]pcBDpc "I'm smooth" vs. [If(a)]pcBADpc "sky".

  • Handshapes themselves can be changed. If a handshape changes from one to the other it will be indicated with the change symbol "#". For example, [S#B] indicates that the handshape changes from an [S] handshape to a [B] handshape. You use the "flash" marker "«" to indicate that a handshape changes to another handshape and then changes quickly back. For example, [S«B] indicates that the handshape changes from an [S] handshape to a [B] handshape and then quickly back to an [S] handshape. Finally, when a handshape changes at the end of the first repetition of a repeated movment, a hyphen is used to separate the two hanshapes, as with [S-B].

  • A handshape must have a facing orientation. Specifically, either the palm of the hand faces away from the signer, towards the signer, or is sideways to the signer. The standard form of a handshape will be facing away from the signer, and will not be marked. When a handshape faces towards the signer or is sideways to the signer, it will be specifically marked. This can be summarized as follows:
    • [S] = the [S] handshape with the palm facing away from the signer.
    • [Sf(t)] = the [S] handshape with the palm facing towards the signer.
    • [Sf(s)] = the [S] handshape with the palm sideways to the signer.
    Handshape will always be overtly marked when there is a change in facing orientation, though. So if a handshape changes from facing away to facing towards, it will be written as follows: [Sf(a#t)]. If it goes from facing away to facing towards to facing away again quickly, that will be marked with the flash marker: [Sf(a«t)].

  • While in a given handshape, the wrist must be bent in a particular way. The standard position of a handshape will be unbent, and this will be unmarked (unless there is a change in bendyness). Other bent positions will be marked. This is a summary of what I just wrote:
    • [S] = the [S] handshape with the wrist unbent.
    • [Sb] = the [S] handshape with the wrist bent forward.
    • [Sv] = the [S] handshape with the wrist really bent forward.
    • [Sh] = the [S] handshape with the wrist hyperextended, or bent backward.
    • [Su#b] = the [S] handshape with a wrist that goes from being unbent to bent.
    • [Su«b] = the [S] handshape with a wrist that goes from being unbent to bent to unbent again.

  • There are a few movements which affect handshape in a particular way. These movements and their notation are listed here:
    • [Sd] = a "dip" movement, where the wrist bends forward a lot, stays bent as the palm turns sideways, and then unbends as the wrist unbends and the palm faces away again, returning to its initial position. This should resemble a circle made with the wrist.
    • [Ss] = a "swing" movement, where the wrist snaps to shift the palm from facing away to facing towards the signer. The arm also moves forward slightly as the wrist snaps.
    • [Sw] = a "wiggle" movment, where the extended non-thumb fingers in a handshape wiggle.

Keep these issues in mind as you read the rest of the handshape section (and the rest of the description of the language).


Romanization of Handshape

Since every handshape used is phonemic, there will be a romanized symbol for each handshape. They will differ, however, to correspond with the manual alphabet and number system of KNSL. This should make it easier in the long run. Here's how the romanization works:

  • First, the following SLIPA handshape symbols are identical in the KNSL romanization system: [4] = 4; [5] = 5; [A] = A; [B] = B; [C] = C; [E] = E; [G] = G; [I] = I; [K] = K; [L] = L; [M] = M; [N] = N; [O] = O; [S] = S; [T] = T; [U] = U; [W] = W; [Y] = Y; and [Ÿ] = Ÿ.

  • The following symbol was changed to coincide with the manual alphabet of KNSL: [Ŷ] = H.

  • The rest of the symbols have been changed to coincide with the number system of KNSL: [Ë] = Z (stands for "zero"); [Ï] = 1; [Ḋ] = 2; [Ḟ] = 3; [F] = 6; [8] = 7; [7] = 8; and [6] = 9.

Those last few are probably confusing, but that's just how the number system goes (for more explanation, go here).


Phonological Issues Related to Handshape

There are some lingering issues related to handshape that need to be discussed. I'll present them in list form:

  • Saying that a handshape is performed with an unbent wrist with the palm facing forward is not maximally informative. What's missing is whether the wrist is bent to either side, or the whole arm, so that knuckles aren't facing upwards, but maybe left or right. In KNSL, this change is not grammatically important. So for the handshape [S] (unbent, palm forward), the natural position will be for the knuckles to be facing upwards. If this handshape is executed in the middle of the torso, though, it will naturally bend so that the knuckles face leftwards (for a right-handed signer). Such a change should be considered irrelevant to the grammar of ASL, and a natural case of assimilation (e.g., the position of the hand assimilates to the place at which the handshape is used). This need not be the case necessarily in a given sign language, but it is in this sign language. An analogous example would be palatalization in Japanese. A phoneme /s/ will naturally become palatalized before [i], but the resulting sound change is irrelevant to the grammar of Japanese (i.e., the result will not be a different word). You can't pronounce "seen" like "sheen" in English, though, and expect it to be perfectly acceptable. In this way, KNSL is more like Japanese than English.

  • In many signs of KNSL, a given place is touched or rubbed with a part of the hand. The part is never specified, but it can be deduced based on the handshape and orientation. Here's a quick list:
    • Facing away, closed handshape = touch or rub with the back of the hand.
    • Facing away, non-closed handshape = touch or rub with the back of the extended finger(s).
    • Facing towards, closed handshape = touch or rub with the curled-in finger(s) of the hand.
    • Facing towards, non-closed handshape = touch or rub with the tips of the extended fingers.
    • Facing sideways, closed handshape = touch or rub with the thumb side of the hand.
    • Facing sideways, non-closed handshape = touch or rub with the tip of the thumb or thumb side of the hand.

  • When a handshape is changed in a given sign, in can change in a variety of places. When there is no movement, then the handshape changes simply when one is ready to change it. When a movement is involved, though, the handshape changes right before the hand reaches its destination (either the coda P, or before the hold that accompanies the end of an M in an M-final word).

That should be all you need to know about handshape, for now. This will help me get into the discussion of place and movement.


Place

Places in sign languages are like consonants in spoken languages. This section is devoted to describing which places are grammatical in KNSL, what their phonological distribution is, and how they're romanized.


The Places of KNSL

  Head Torso
Above the Brow Eyes, Nose and Ears Cheeks Mouth and Chin Upper Torso Lower Torso Arms
Central h, x n   c, l, u k, t b, i, m, s  
Mirrored br, sf, tm ey, sy dm mt, sc pc, sh bl, sb  
Reversible   ear         bcp, lbw, plm, wrs

Though all these places are used in KNSL, not all will be encoded in the romanization, which I'll now skip right to. [Note: For information on the symbols used in this table, go the section on place on my page on SLIPA.]


Romanization of Places

Before describing the system, I want to discuss some guiding issues. First, though SLIPA has a system for distinguishing centralized places from mirrored places, etc., I decided not to duplicate such a system for KNSL. The reason is that I wanted to go for recognizability in the romanization system, and pronounceability. If you leave out the handshapes and the diacritics, you can actually pronounce the transcriptions of KNSL signs. Thus, every place sign is a pronounceable onset, and a (mostly) pronounceable coda for a spoken language. Additionally, underlining (and overlining) have been dropped from the romanization. Instead, if a place is supposed to originate on a signer's non-dominant side, an apostrophe is placed after the romanized symbol. This is how the system looks:

  • These symbols remain the same going from SLIPA to the romanization of KNSL: b, bl, br, k, n, sh, and x.

  • The following place symbols were slightly (though recognizably) modified: /bcp/ > sp; /c/ > ch; /dm/ > d; /ear/ > r; /lbw/ > l; /mt/ > m; /pc/ > p; /plm/ > pl; /s/ > st; /sc/ > sk; /sf/ > f; /sy/ > s; /t/ > th; and /wrs/ > rs.

  • The following symbols don't really resemble the SLIPA symbols: /ey/ > sn; /h/ > t; /m/ > h; and /mt/ > kr.

  • Some symbols were collapsed in the romanization. For example, the romanized symbol b covers both /b/ and /i/, though some signs generally use one over the other. The same is the case for /l/ and /u/, which have been collapsed under the symbol m. Additionally, the mirrored versions of /i/ and /b/ (/bl/ and /sb/, respectively) are now collapsed uner the romanized symbol bl.

  • KNSL has an additional place symbol, z. This is a mirrored symbol that stands for "neutral space". In KNSL, the neutral space is defined as the area in front and to the right of the signer's right shoulder (if the signer is right-handed; reversed if the signer is left-handed). Though neutral, the neutral space is a specific place in KNSL, and is used by a lot of signs.

  • Some notes on free variation: the romanized symbol d can be realized either as /dm/ or /ch/; the symbol r can be realized as either /ear/ or /rlb/; the phoneme f can be realized either as /sf/ or /tm/ (see below); the phoneme m can be realized either as /u/ or /l/ (see below); the arm places can refer to any place near the places in question (e.g., l can be on top of the elbow, inside, next to, etc.).

Some of the issues touched on above will be discussed in more detail in the next section.


Phonological Issues Related to Place

Phonological variation does occur with the places of KNSL. Below is a description of how that variation occurs:

  • As mentioned above, b can be realized as either /i/ or /b/, and bl can be realized either as /bl/ or /sb/. These are pretty much in free variation. There are tendencies, though. For example, the sign for "empty" is generally signed with a movement ending at /b/, whereas the sign for "baby" is generally signed at /i/. Switching the places will not result in ungrammaticality, though.

  • The symbol r may be pronounced either as /ear/ or /rlb/. There are no tendencies for particular signs with r; it can really be either at any time.

  • The symbol d has two allophones, /dm/ and /ch/, which are in complimentary distribution with one another. When the phoneme d is either followed or preceded by a movement which leads to or comes from somewhere else on the face, the realization is /dm/. Otherwise, the realization is /ch/.

  • The symbol m has two allophones, /l/ and /u/, which are in complimentary distribution with one another. When the phoneme m is in onset position or is the nucleus of a syllable, it's realized as /l/. When m is in coda position, it's realized as /u/.

  • The arm symbols are generally realized on the underside (e.g., the forearm, the underside of the wrist, the palm, the interior of the elbow), but any realization near the place in question will suffice.

Now that place and handshape have been discussed, we can move on to movement.


Movement

Movement in KNSL is much more compartmentalized than in other sign languages, so to speak. And rather than breaking down its explanation into sections, there will just be one section on movement, most of which will be about its romanization.

Taking inventory of the movements present in KNSL, I noticed that a lot of the movements were basically the same. So, for example, there are /BX/, /XD/, /JY/, and /YL/ movements, which all mean different things in SLIPA, but which all describe a short movement to the right (for a right-handed speaker). The difference is where the movement starts (i.e., close to the body or far from the body; in the middle of the body or to the left). And, if instead of looking at the movement cube as points in space you look at them as the endpoints of straight lines, what you get are eight different types of straight lines that correspond to the points on a compass. Given that distribution, I thought, "Why not relate it to the vowel space?" And this is the result:

Up-Left Up Up-Right
Left i ü u Right
e () o
æ ä a
Down-Left Down Down-Right

All right! That table looks like the 70's!

What it shows, though, is how a movement is transcribed from the perspective of a right handed signer. In other words, if you are right handed, then right is right for you. What is transcribed as "right" on the screen is your actual righthand side, and if you were signing to someone who was facing you from behind the computer screen, then you would move your hand right to make a rightward movement. This movement would be described using the symbol o. Hopefully that makes sense (well, for the lefties, at least backwards sense).

The point of using this type of romanization system is that many language creators (i.e., the ones who are most likely viewing this site) are familiar with the vowel space, so using u, which is in the upper-righthand corner of the vowel space, to describe a movement up and to the right should be rather intuitive. Additionally, this will allow KNSL words to look speakable. Taking away handshape and diacritics, a PMP KNSL word will look like a CVC spoken word. For example, moving to the right from the throat to the righthand shoulder will be romanized as thosh. That's pretty wordy, right?

So far, this explains the basic directions of movement. Additionally, movements can be long or short. A long movement is, for example, one that goes from one shoulder to another (say, sheesh', going from right to left), or, on the face, one that goes from the top of the head to the chin (e.g., tääch). A short movement would be a movement, say, from the clavicle to the sternum (e.g., käst), or, on the face, a movement from the mouth to the chin (e.g., mäch). That's how short and long movements are defined naturally. However, you can change the duration of a movement by changing the length of the vowel. So if a movement from shoulder to shoulder is ordinarily sheesh', then a quick movement from shoulder to shoulder would be shesh'. Also, if an ordinary movement from the clavicle to the sternum is käst, then kääst would be a slow movement from the clavicle to the sternum.

Sticking with straight movements, another issue is whether the movement moves outward or inward. With a straight movement, movements can either begin or end in what I call the Y plane (i.e., an area further out from the body than one ordinarily uses when signing). For that reason, the consonant y is used to create a diphthong. So, if ee specifies a movement to the left, then yee will specify a movement to the left that begins further out than expected; eey will specify a movement that ends further out than expected; and yeey will be a straight movement to the left, all of which is completed very far away from the body.

The last issue having to do with straight movements is a movement that comes directly towards the body or goes directly away from the body. This is a common movement in KNSL, and is represented by teh vowel ÿ. This is what's known as an epenthetic vowel. When inserted bewteen two places, it simply indicates that the only thing that's important is that the two places are all that's important, and that a movement is simply required to get from one to the other. In the case of direct outward or inward movement, the letter y is used with the epenthetic vowel. So yÿ is a movement that starts far away and moves directly in towards the body; ÿy is a movement that starts at the body and moves directly outward; and yÿy doesn't exist at all.

One important feature of KNSL movement, though, is arc movement. I took an inventory of the arc movements of KNSL, though, and boiled them down to a set few. These are those arc movements (in alphabetical order):

  • áá: describes the arc EBG (and like arcs).
  • â: describes the arc XC (and like arcs).
  • ââ: describes the arc AYC (and like arcs).
  • ãã: describes the arc ADC (and like arcs).
  • é: describes the arc XB (and like arcs).
  • éé: describes the arc DAB (and like arcs).
  • èè: describes the arc DCB (and like arcs).
  • ó: describes the arc XD (and like arcs).
  • óó: describes the arc BAD (and like arcs).
  • òò: describes the arc BCD (and like arcs).
  • öö: describes the arc BYD (and like arcs).
  • û: describes the arc XA (and like arcs).
  • wãã: describes the arc EDC (and like arcs).
  • wíí: describes the arc BXE (and like arcs).

A couple notes on these. First, you can add a y to the beginning or ending of each of these to indicate that the beginning or ending of the arc is in the y plane (far away from the body). Also, the w's in the last two arcs indicate that the arc has an irregular starting point. These arcs are gradual arcs, and are fairly flat two thirds of the way through the movement, and then they curve at the end. Finally, you'll also probably note that there are plenty of other arc possibilities. The list above is simply a list of the arcs that occur in KNSL.

Unlike P's, M's can come one right after the other. In this case, additional movements are performed with the ending point of the previous movement as a starting point. So, in a word like [6b]hoääe>H, "house" (ignore the last part; it will be discussed later), the [6b] handshape (of the right hand) starts at the heart area (midchest) and moves rightward for a short distance. Wherever this movement ends, you then move the right hand down for a bit of a longer distance. Wherever that movement ends, you then move the right hand left for a short distance. So there are kind of imaginary P's in between the movements, but they're not specific, and so aren't specified.


Remaining Issues

Now for the left over issues. First, there are several diacritics that are used in KNSL. This is a short list of them:

  • [X]xyxc: The "c" diacritic indicates that the whole hand (without any wrist bending) is moved in a counterclockwise circle once.

  • [X]xyxf: The "f" diacritic indicates that the exposed fingers in the given handshape are wiggled. This movement is restricted to the fingers, and independent of any other movement of the wrist or arm.

  • [X]xyxh: The "h" diacritic indicates that the hand bounces up and down (as if it were hopping) as it moves along the path specified by the movement.

  • [X]xyxr: The "r" diacritic modifies either an entire sign or simply a place. If it only modifies a place, it indicates that that particular place is brushed lightly a couple times with the hand (see above for how). If it modifies a sign, it indicates that the body is rubbed in a direction specified by the movment with a starting and ending point specified by the onset and coda places.

  • [X]xyxt: The "t" diacritic indicates that the place in question is touched briefly. This diacritic is placed directly after the place in question.

  • [X]xyxv: The "v" diacritic indicates that the movement is kind of a wave movement (so, in the direction of movement, upwards a bit, then down a bit). By itself, the wave moves from right to left across the body. In conjunction with a movement, it goes in the direction of motion.

  • [X]xyxw: The "w" diacritic, when modifying a sign and not a handshape, indicates that the whole arm is wiggled back and forth.

So far, all the information on this page is geared towards explaining one-handed signs. There are, however, a large number of two-handed signs in KNSL. None involve the two hands moving completely indepedently of one another (e.g., one hand rubbing the forehead, and the other moving away from the body making a wave shape). As a result, the behavior of the non-dominant hand can be explained in terms of the dominant hand. Here's how it works:

  • [X]xyx>H: This is what's known as a regular horizontal mirror. It entails that if a mirror were placed in such a way that it divided your body in two, so that your right and left hand were separated, then the movement of the non-dominant hand would mirror the movement of the dominant hand in the same way as if there were an actual mirror there. So if the dominant hand moves up or down, the non-dominant hand also moves up or down. If the dominant hand moves left or right, however, the non-dominant hand moves in the opposite way (e.g., if your right hand moves right, your left hand will move left, so that both hands are getting further away from each other at the same rate).

  • [X]xyx<H: This is what's known as an inverse horizontal mirror. It entails that if a mirror were placed in such a way that it divided your body in two, so that your right and left hand were separated, then the movement of the non-dominant hand would mirror the movement of the dominant hand in a backwards kind of way. So if the dominant hand moves left or right, the non-dominant hand also moves left or right. If the dominant hand moves up or down or forwards or backwards, however, the non-dominant hand moves in the opposite way (e.g., if your right hand moves up, your left hand will move down, so that both hands are getting further away from each other at the same rate, but they continue to be separated from each other horizontally by a uniform distance entailed by the place of the sign).

  • [X]xyx>V: This is what's known as a regular vertical mirror. It entails that if a mirror were placed in such a way that it was parallel to the ground, so that your right and left hand were separated (one above, one below), then the movement of the non-dominant hand would mirror the movement of the dominant hand in the same way as if there were an actual mirror there. So if the dominant hand moves left or right, the non-dominant hand also moves left or right. If the dominant hand moves up or down, however, the non-dominant hand moves in the opposite way (e.g., if your right hand moves up, your left hand will move down, so that both hands are getting further away from each other at the same rate).

  • [X]xyx<V: This is what's known as an inverse vertical mirror. It entails that if a mirror were placed in such a way that it was parallel to the ground, so that your right and left hand were separated (one above, one below), then the movement of the non-dominant hand would mirror the movement of the dominant hand in a backwards kind of way. So if the dominant hand moves up or down, the non-dominant hand also moves up or down. If the dominant hand moves left or right or forwards or backwards, however, the non-dominant hand moves in the opposite way (e.g., if your right hand moves right, your left hand will move left, so that both hands are getting further away from each other at the same rate, but they continue to be separated from each other horizontally by a uniform distance entailed by the place of the sign).

One note about mirrors. There is a convention of KNSL transcription that specifies when an action is mirrored with both hands touching each other. That convention is this: If a sign is mirrored at a place which is central (see place inventory above), then the sign is performed with the hands touching. Additionally, there are a particular class of signs which are romanized in a conventionalized way. An example is the sign for "wood", romanized as follows: [Kf(s)]äst>V://. For signs that end in äst>V:// (and only) those signs, the hands touch together. I left off the t diacritic so that there would be no confusion about the sternum being touched (it isn't).

Finally, there is a sign-level suffix which indicates that the action of the sign is repeated. I borrowed this sign from music, and it looks like this (when italicized): ://. So, for a sign like [Su#b]z://, "head", the action of the sign is a change from an unbent wrist to a bent wrist. What happens then is that the dominant hand in the [S] handshape is placed in neutral space unbent, and then is bent. Then, the hand returns to an unbent state, and is bent again. When the action of the sign is a movement (accompanied by touching or rubbing, as the case may be), the movement is repeated. Also, as noted above, certain signs require a movement to be repeated with a different handshape each time. For example, the sign [H-Ÿ]hÿy://, "there", requires a forward movement starting at the mid-chest area accompanied by the [H] handshape. After this is accomplished, the hand returns to the mid-chest area, but assumes the [Ÿ] handshape. Then the movement is repeated.


Conclusion

Well, I must say (hesitantly) that I think that's it. This is all you need to know to understand the transcription system used for KNSL, and to understand how the signs are produced, as well as some of the issues that go along with their production. If anything's unclear, or there's anything I missed, please let me know, and I'll modify this page accordingly. To see some of the handshapes in question, go to the description of the manual alphabet and number system of KNSL. It has neat-o pictures!

Back to KNSL Main

This page was last modified on Tuesday, March 3, 2009.
This website was last modified on .
This page can be viewed normally, as a milk or dark chocolate bar, in sleek black and white, or in many other ways!
All languages, fonts, pictures, and other materials copyright © 2003- David J. Peterson.

free counters