LearnSigns 011: Notating Signs

There are 5 elements to most signs. They are: shape, location, movement, orientation and non-manual elements. When you are learning new signs, especially when you don’t have a book or video to refer to, you need to write down these 5 aspects for the signs you are trying to learn. Of these 5 elements, the one that may not be used as often is the non-manual elements.

Here are the 5 elements along with how to describe the sign for GRANDMOTHER.


This is the shape of the hand when doing the sign. In many cases it is a shape that is similar to a letter or number. Or there are a few other shapes you will see often. Some of these are the mitten hand, claw, and bent V fingers. Use a description of the hand shape when notating signs.

For GRANDMOTHER the hand shape is just like the number 5.


This is a short description of where the sign is placed or moved from and to. For GRANDMOTHER you can say that you place the 5-hand on the chin.


There will usually be some type of movement with a sign. If there is no movement, then you can say that the sign is placed at a location. Building on the two previous elements, you would say that GRANDMOTHER is done by placing the 5 hand on the chin and then pushing it forward about 6 inches.


This is the orientation of the hand when making the sign. Often I will notate signs by writing down the orientation of the palm. Does it face up, down, left or right? For GRANDMOTHER it is easier to write down where the fingertips of the 5-hand are pointing. GRANDMOTHER is done with the fingertips pointed straight up.

Non-Manual Elements

This would be things like facial expression or body language. Not all signs will have this. Many words can be negated by shaking the head NO when doing the sign.

The word for GRANDMOTHER does not have any specific non-manual elements that need to be notated.

A full written description of GRANDMOTHER would be something like this: Place the 5-hand, with the fingers pointing up, on the chin. Then move, or push, the hand forward about 6 inches.

View the episode transcript.

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