The definitions provided in this glossary are specific to the curriculum context in which the terms are used. Definitions for terms that are important for understanding American Sign Language but that are not used in the curriculum can be found in Appendix B.


ASL adjective

An ASL word that modifies or describes an ASL noun. Adjectives are typically placed before or after a noun.

ASL adverb

An ASL word that modifies or qualifies an ASL verb in relation to place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, or degree.

ASL aspect

A linguistic category that indicates whether the action or state denoted by a verb is completed or in progress, momentary or habitual, and extending to all members of a group or to specific individuals. In ASL, aspect is conveyed by varying the size, shape, rate, and rhythm of a verb, as well as the number of times its movement is repeated. There are several subcategories of aspect: temporal, distributional, grammatical, and completive.

ASL clause

A unit of grammatical organization inserted into declarative statements, yes/no questions, rhetorical questions, wh-questions, imperative sentences, and active or passive voice sentences, preceded by a pause. See also complex ASL sentence.

ASL community

A group of people who use ASL as a common language and who have a shared identity, including shared attitudes, values, norms, traditions, and institutions.

ASL construction

The process of creating an ASL work. Specific knowledge and skills are essential to creating ASL works that incorporate content and forms effectively in a variety of contexts and for a variety of purposes. During this process, a student will apply their knowledge of ASL conventions, ASL grammatical structures, non-manual markers, ASL usage, and registers correctly.

ASL conventions

Accepted practices or rules in the use of ASL language. ASL conventions help convey meaning (e.g., inflection).

ASL conversation regulators

Cultural and social rules that ASL community members follow when participating in conversations. The two types of ASL conversation regulators are conversational openers and correcting information. There are three ways to begin a conversation with an ASL person: (1) gain attention by extending your arm and waving your hand in the direction of the person; (2) make eye contact with the person; and (3) introduce oneself and ask questions such as what their ASL name sign is and where they are from. The regulator for correcting information involves the use of visual cues to indicate “no” with head shaking followed by a correction.



A type of conversational response in ASL. A backchannel occurs when one person is sharing information and the other person is indicating engagement with responses such as nodding. Backchannelling in ASL serves a meta-conversational purpose. It assures the person who is sharing information that they have the receiver’s attention. Backchannel responses enable meaningful person-to-person interaction.



Any morpheme that functions to represent nouns and verbs with descriptive information such as location, type of action, size, shape, and manner. Classifier handshapes represent specific categories (people, places, objects) or classes of objects.


A word that shares a common root with a word in another language. For example, there are a number of ASL and LSF (langue des signes française) cognates such as SEE (ASL)/VOIR (LSF) and LAUGH (ASL)/RIRE (LSF).


The underlying quality of being logical and consistent and making sense. An ASL exposition, text, story, poem, or any other form of ASL work is coherent if the ASL grammatical structures and non-manual markers are connected logically and if the sentences are semantically accurate. See also cohesion.


The connection of ideas that form a united whole. ASL linguistic devices, including grammatical structures and non-manual markers, are used to scaffold relations within and between sentences in any ASL work, literary or non-literary. For example, Clayton Valli, an ASL poet, uses phonological and syntactic features (specific handshapes, locations, and movement paths) to create cohesion in his ASL poem “Snowflake”. See also coherence.

complex ASL sentence

A sentence containing a main clause and one or more subordinate clauses joined by a subordinating conjunction(s). See also ASL clause.

comprehensible input

Language that is made comprehensible to the learner through the use of visual aids, familiar content, rephrasing, repetition, and other means. 

cultural protocols

The practices that guide behaviour when one respectfully engages with an individual or group, acknowledging and following the distinct traditions, customs, and world views of that individual/group. See also culture.


The language, literature, identity, values, beliefs, norms, heritage, expectations, and institutions of a specific community of people. See also cultural protocols.


eye gaze in ASL

A form of eye contact in ASL that serves a variety of functions. Eye gaze is a way of regulating turn-taking, of signalling a “role shift” (used with head and body positioning), of establishing agreement between subject and object (used with head tilt), of distinguishing definite and indefinite forms, and of requiring the “listener” to maintain eye contact while the “speaker” breaks eye contact for a short time before resuming eye contact. It is also a way of constructing linguistic contrasts, including agreement marking, in ASL. Group-indicating eye gaze is used to tell the group (as small as two potential addressees) that the person is treating the group as a unit and not singling out an individual in the group. See also referential shift in ASL.


graphic organizer in a video format

A type of graphic organizer (e.g., a Venn diagram, web chart, or flow chart) that includes ASL video text. Graphic organizers help students organize, analyse, synthesize, and assess information and ideas.



Descriptions and figures of “speech” used in ASL to create vivid mental pictures in the mind of the audience (e.g., metaphors, similes, and other types of figurative language).


The act of referring to a person, object, or location with the index finger. In Appendix B, see also ASL referent.

Indigenous Sign Languages

The sign languages used by Indigenous people in Canada. Indigenous people often use ASL in addition to an Indigenous Sign Language.


Drawing meaning from or reaching a conclusion about an ASL literary work or ASL text by using reasoning and evidence based on what the author states and implies and on what the individual brings to the ASL work from their own prior knowledge and experience.

Inuit Sign Language (ISL)

One of the Indigenous Sign Languages; it is used predominantly in Nunavut.


language learning strategies

Techniques that learners can use to assist in the acquisition of a second language. Examples for learning ASL include memorizing, visualizing, organizing, and categorizing vocabulary and classifiers; analysing grammatical structures; and seeking opportunities to practise, develop, and acquire ASL.

langue des signes québécoise (LSQ)

A sign language used predominantly in Quebec and in parts of Ontario. It is recognized in Ontario as a language of instruction as outlined in Regulation 298, “Operation of Schools – General”, R.R.O. 1990, Section 32. In Appendix B, see also LSQ culture.


Maritime Sign Language (MSL)

A sign language used in the Atlantic provinces and descended from British Sign Language. MSL is gradually being replaced by ASL, which is the language being used by the younger generation living in the region. MSL is considered an endangered language so efforts are being made to preserve it.

metaphor in ASL

An implied comparison in which an ASL word or phrase normally applied to a person, animal, or object is used to describe someone or something else. ASL metaphors are constructed to link the concrete domain to the abstract domain.


negation in ASL

The use of specific non-manual markers, which include head shaking from side to side, frowning, or squinting. Negation is conveyed by the use of one or more of these non-manual markers. The word NOT is not required in negations but may be used for emphasis.

non-manual marker (NMM)

A syntactic device that serves to differentiate specific types of ASL sentences (e.g., wh-questions are indicated by lowered eyebrows, head tilted forward, and a direct eye gaze). NMMs are also used to convey adjectival and adverbial information (e.g., intense – a baring of the teeth – co-occurs with WALK) and to mark the topic of a sentence. 

noun-verb pairs

Two ASL words that share a common handshape, location, and palm orientation and for which a difference in movement renders as either a noun or a verb. The segmental structure of the verb (the movement [M] and hold [H] segments of an ASL word) is repeated to construct the noun.


pluralization in ASL

Expressing in or forming the plural in ASL. Pluralization can occur in several ways: by adding a plural modulation to a singular classifier or by using a plural classifier; by using a plural modulation of a pronoun; by using numbers (e.g., TWO, FOUR); by using indefinite number words (FEW, SOME, MANY); or by repeating a noun. In the same sentence, plurality may be indicated in several ways depending on which ASL words occur and the form of those ASL words.


The ability, regardless of proficiency, to use a number of different languages to comprehend and convey ideas and information (e.g., an individual might use ASL, LSQ, MSL, and English).

point of view

The position of the narrator, character, or object in relation to context and content; thus, the vantage point from which events are seen (e.g., the omniscient, the third-person, or the first-person point of view).


The act of referring to a person, object, or location by using a pronoun.


referential shift in ASL

The use of eye gaze, head shift, body shift (which includes the head and shoulders), and ASL words to indicate a person (other than oneself) or an object. Referential shifting is very common in storytelling. For example, an ASL person may employ referential shifting during a “reported speech” to indicate a shift in point of view. The ASL person adjusts their eye gaze and shifts their head away from the audience when taking on one character’s role and then breaks eye contact, shifts eye gaze, and shifts the body again to indicate when they are returning to the narrator role. In situations where there are two or more spatial referents (persons or objects) in the ASL space, this is referred to as a “multi-referential shift”.


The degree of informality or formality. Each register requires the appropriate selection and use of ASL conventions, ASL vocabulary, ASL language structures, and non-manual markers suitable for the specific audience and context. In Appendix B, see also colloquialism in ASL.


sentence types in ASL

Categories of sentences. Basic sentence types in ASL consist of yes/no questions, wh-questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?), rhetorical questions, negation, commands, topicalization, and conditionals. Non-manual markers are required to formulate each sentence type.

short ASL narrative

A brief ASL story using familiar ASL conventions, ASL vocabulary, classifiers, phrases, grammatical structures, and non-manual markers.

spatial mapping

An essential ASL discourse feature that involves using spatial structuring to construct coherent and cohesive segments of language. For example, in referential mapping, ASL individuals structure or map concepts in ASL signing space, evoking conceptual referents in the minds of an audience (e.g., using the diagonal movement – rightward and leftward – that establishes the relationship between geographical locations, such as Canada and England). In ASL poetry, the prosodic use of space also constructs patterns that bind the utterance to the more rhythmic, flowing patterns of poetry.

stanza in ASL

In ASL stories and poetry, structural units that divide a narrative into segments based on prosodic features.


Distinctive ASL figurative language, ASL word choices, ASL sentence structures, ASL literary devices, and ASL language patterns that work together to establish mood, images, and meaning in an ASL literary work.

symbol in ASL

Something that stands for or represents an abstract idea. Symbols are an integral part of ASL literature. Figurative language and symbolic meaning are connected because they both remove language from its regular use to create new meaning. ASL literature involves the manipulation of handshapes and space for aesthetic and symbolic effects.

synonym in ASL

An ASL word that has the same or similar meaning as another ASL word.

syntax in ASL

The way in which ASL words are arranged to form grammatical structures (e.g., ASL phrases, ASL clauses, ASL sentences).


temporal aspect

A type of ASL inflection that indicates the action of the verb with reference to time. See also ASL inflection.

tense in ASL

A grammatical category to indicate the time of an action. See also time in ASL.

time in ASL

Using specific ASL words to indicate time or duration. Time is conveyed via “time words in ASL”, modulations of these time words in ASL, and time-related modulations of verbs that are accompanied by non-manual markers. Events are usually described in the order that they occur or will occur. For example, an ASL time word such as FINISH means “in the past” or it means that something that must be done first before other events occur (e.g., IX=1  PLAY  FINISH  PICK-UP  TOY  GO-OUT  SHOP  FOOD.). ASL grammatical structure also has a way of representing habitual time such as EVERY>MONDAY (H M H) or EVERY>NIGHT (H M H). In the example, EVERY>MONDAY, the handshape and palm orientation are the same, but the segmental structure and the location are different. See also time line in ASL.

time line in ASL

A way of indicating time in ASL. A “time line” is produced in relation to the person’s body (e.g., distant past, past, recent present, present, near future, future, distant future). Morphemes are used to specify the time of the event. Some examples are NOW, TODAY, YESTERDAY, TOMORROW, MIDNIGHT, MORNING, AFTERNOON, NOT-YET, RECENT, LATER, LONG-TIME-AGO, and FUTURE. See also tense in ASL, time in ASL.

topicalization in ASL

The placement of the subject or the object at the beginning of a sentence as the topic and introducing it by using non-manual markers (e.g., raised eyebrows, slight forward head tilt, and sometimes a short pause) followed by one or more comments, statements, questions, or opinions. Here is an example of a topicalization in ASL:   FINISH  EAT  CHEESE.


variation in ASL

Among ASL people, there are differences in pronunciation and production, vocabulary, and grammar. Factors that affect these differences include age, gender, ethnicity, education, geographical area, and context.

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