Gloss: transcription symbols

You may notice capitalized words, words with hypen and plus symbols, and un-English grammar here and there on the handspeak site. They are a transcription of the ASL sentences, phrases, or words.

What is gloss? Wilcox describes gloss as follows:

Glossing is the practice of writing a morpheme-by-morpheme 'translation' using English words. Glosses indicate what the individual parts of the native word mean. Glosses do not provide a true translation, which would instead use appropriate English ways of saying "The same thing."

For example, German Es geht mir gut may be glossed as "It goes to-me good" (the hyphenated gloss "to-me" indicates that it refers to a single word in the original). A true English translation of this expression would be something like, "I'm doing fine." Ref

Now you see that glossing isn't a true translation. If the English sentence "I'm doing fine" were glossed in German transcription. It would look strange to German speakers and vice versa alike. Each language, whether signed or spoken, has their own grammar and structure.

Below is a list of some conventional and few modified symbols, their examples and explanation. The Handspeak site uses a video illustration whereever possible, along with glosses.

Transcription symbols

The website "Handspeak" uses two different colors to identify ASL and English: gloss in blue to indicate ASL and sometimes green in translation for English.

capital letters. An English gloss in capital letters represents an ASL word or sign. It is known as gloss. Remember this is not a translation. It is only an approximate representation of the ASL sign itself, not necessarily a meaning.

The hyphen - is used to represent a single ASL word/sign when more than one English gloss is used. E.g. stare-at (a single ASL word) or GO-to.

The plus sign + between two ASL words is used for ASL compound words. Eg true+work for sure enough, mother+father for parents.

The plus sign ++ at the end of a gloss indicates a number of repetition of an ASL word. Eg again++ (signing "again" two more time) meaning "again and again". Another example, HELP+++ for "help many/several times" or "help from time to time" depending on the duration of the movement and spatial reference to convey different meanings.

t or topic is a shortcut for "topicalization", usually with raised eyebrows.

fs- represents a fingerspelled word. Eg fs-alice

# represents a fingerspelled loan sign. Eg #all

ix, a shortcut for "index", is for a referential point in space. IX1 can mean one side and IX2 for another side of the signing space. It doesn't matter which side it is as long as you establish a spatial reference for a noun and you keep consistent with it in a sentence or paragraph until the subject is changed.

cl is a shortcut for "classifier" which can function as a "pronoun" or another form that represents an ASL noun and/or its verb predicate. It is used in a verb phrase as well as prepositional phrase.

loc is a shortcut for "locative", a part of the grammatical structure in ASL.


A typical problem is that hearing ASL learners often think in English while signing ASL. In our ASL classes, we often emphasize that ASL students must think in ASL while speaking ASL, just like when they speak French or another second language, they think in that language.

A concern with glossing is that glossing reinforces the association of ASL with English that ASL students have a tendency to to think in English when articulating ASL. Remember that glosses are not true translation. Glosses are used for helping transcribing in print when ASL writing is not used.

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be useful for intermediate-level learners and ASL students to review as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)