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If I have a sign language (specifically, American Sign Language) sign which I don't remember the meaning of, how can I search online to find its meaning? I've tried describing the sign in Google, but that doesn't always work.

For example, if I knew the sign for the word 'name' (2 'H' hand shapes tapping on each other), but I didn't know that it meant 'name', how would I look it up? There's no obvious way to input a hand sign into a search box or turn to the correct page of a dictionary of hand signs based only on visuospatial knowledge of the sign.

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This basically comes down to "how does a sign dictionary work"?

  • By phonemes: This does require an understanding of the handshapes used by the particular sign language. The premier one for ASL to English is The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary, published by Gallaudet University Press.

    • In addition to handshape, Handspeak.com breaks down signs by their location, movement, and what it calls their hand type (i.e. whether it is one-handed or whether it is two-handed symmetrical or two-handed alternate).

    • This phonological analysis is used as the basis for many sign writing systems, which can be considered 'featural' alphabets, such as Sutton SignWriting (in Unicode) and Stokoe. The Hamburg Notation System (HamNoSys) is designed as the equivalent of the IPA. As written systems, with standards of ordering, there have been dictionaries produced for ASL in these scripts.

  • There have been attempts at video-based translation using AI. These are apparently based on the spatial co-ordinates of signer's joints, or as the article puts it "the digital pivot points of the signer's bones".

  • Contextual lists in English/other online written oral language. This is probably the most practical way at this point, especially for non-ASL signs. This requires you to know the context and to make an educated guess, and then look up signs in English/other written language that are semantically related. Soemtimes a good measure of deduction is required.

There is a very nice list of sign dictionaries in both directions on RMTC-D/HH. Personally, I quite like using Handspeak.com for ASL and do so frequently to look up novel signs.

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