Stokoe notation

Stokoe notation
Languages ASL
Time period
1960 to present
Child systems

Stokoe notation (/ˈstki/) is the first[1] phonemic script used for sign languages. It was created by William Stokoe for American Sign Language (ASL), with Latin letters and numerals used for the shapes they have in fingerspelling, and iconic glyphs to transcribe the position, movement, and orientation of the hands. It was first published as the organizing principle of Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf (1960),[2] and later also used in A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, by Stokoe et al. (1965).[3] In the 1965 dictionary, signs are themselves arranged alphabetically, according to their Stokoe transcription, rather than being ordered by their English glosses as in other sign-language dictionaries. This made it the only ASL dictionary where the reader could look up a sign without first knowing how to translate it into English. The Stokoe notation was later adapted to British Sign Language (BSL) in Kyle et al. (1985) and to Australian Aboriginal sign languages in Kendon (1988). In each case the researchers modified the alphabet to accommodate phonemes not found in ASL.

The Stokoe notation is mostly restricted to linguists and academics. The notation is arranged linearly on the page and can be written with a typewriter that has the proper font installed. Unlike SignWriting or the Hamburg Notation System, it is based on the Latin alphabet and is phonemic, being restricted to the symbols needed to meet the requirements of ASL (or extended to BSL, etc.) rather than accommodating all possible signs. For example, there is a single symbol for circling movement, regardless of whether the plane of the movement is horizontal or vertical.

Writing direction

Stokoe notation is written horizontally left to right like the Latin alphabet (plus limited vertical stacking of movement symbols, and some diacritical marks written above or below other symbols). This contrasts with SignWriting, which is written vertically from top to bottom (plus partially free two-dimensional placement of components within the writing of a single sign).

Symbol usage

Stokoe coined the terms tab ("tabula" or sign location), dez ("designator" or handshape & orientation ), and sig ("signification" or motion & action). These are used to categorize features of sign-language phonemes, somewhat like the distinction between consonant, vowel, and tone is used in the description of oral languages. A sign is written in the order tab-dez-sig: TDs. Compound signs are separated with a double dashed pipe, approximately TDs¦¦TDs.

A serious deficiency of the system is that it does not provide for facial expression, mouthing, eye gaze, and body posture, as Stokoe had not worked out their phonemics in ASL.[4] Verbal inflection and non-lexical movement is awkward to notate, and more recent analyses such as those of Ted Supalla have contradicted Stokoe's set of motion phonemes. There is also no provision for representing the relationship between signs in their natural context, which restricts the usefulness of the notation to the lexical or dictionary level. Nonetheless, Stokoe demonstrated for the first time that a sign language can be written phonemically just like any other language.

In the tables below, the first column is a web-based approximation of the Stokoe symbol using the inventory available in Unicode, and the second is an ASCII substitution for the purpose of citing examples in this article. Proper display of the third column requires the Stokoe font available at the external link below; without that font, you will see the corresponding ASCII character, as used in Mandel (1993).

Tab (Location)

The tab symbols are a null sign for a neutral location and iconic symbols for parts of the head, arm, and torso. In addition, the dez (handshape) symbols below may be used to indicate that the location is the passive hand in a specific shape.

Stokoe** Description
Ø00neutral location
Qhface, or whole head (symbol is superimposed ᴖ and ᴗ)
P u forehead, brow, or upper face
T m eyes, nose, or mid face
U l lips, chin, or lower face
Ȝ}c cheek, temple, ear, or side face
ΠN kneck
[][][] torso, shoulders, chest, trunk
Ƨ7i non-dominant upper arm
Jj non-dominant elbow, forearm
ɑ9ainside of wrist
ɒ6bback of wrist

Given a handshape (dez) D,* QD would be D signed at the face, JD the same handshape signed at the elbow, and 9D on the inside of the wrist.

* "D" is not used for a specific handshape, but is a standin here for whichever dez is used.

** Proper display requires installation of the Stokoe font available at the external link below.

Dez (Handshape)

The symbols for handshapes are taken from the ASL manual alphabet: A represents a fist, the handshape used for fingerspelling "A" (and also "S" and "T", since the difference is not significant outside fingerspelling and initialisms); B represents a flat hand, the handshape used for fingerspelling "B" and "4", etc. When a dez involves two hands, two letters are used.

Dez symbols may also be used as tabs. For example, QB represents a flat hand, B, located at the face, Q, and <BB> represents a dominant flat hand B acting on a passive flat hand B. The latter is disambiguated from two B hands acting together by using another letter for the tab, such as ØBB for two B hands acting in neutral space, or QBB for both hands at the face.

Besides the shape of the hands, the dez includes their orientation. This is indicated, when necessary, with subscripts, which are introduced in the next section.

Afist (as ASL 'a', 's', or 't')
Bflat hand (as ASL 'b' or '4')
5spread hand (as ASL '5')
Ccupped hand (as ASL 'c', or more open)
Eclaw hand (as ASL 'e', or more clawlike)
Fokay hand (as ASL 'f'; thumb & index touch or cross)
Gpointing hand (as ASL 'g' 'd' or '1')
Hindex + middle fingers together (as ASL 'h,' 'n' or 'u')
Ipinkie (as ASL 'i')
Kthumb touches middle finger of V (as ASL 'k' or 'p')
Langle hand, thumb + index (as ASL 'l')
3vehicle classifier hand, thumb + index + middle fingers (as ASL '3')
Otapered hand, fingers curved to touch thumbtip (as ASL 'o')
Rcrossed fingers (as ASL 'r')
Vspread index + middle fingers (as ASL 'v' or '2')
Wthumb touches pinkie (as ASL 'w')
Xhook (as ASL 'x')
Yhorns (as ASL 'y', or as index + pinkie)
8bent middle finger; may touch thumb (as ASL '8', this is a common allophone of Y)

There are three diacritics that modify the shape of the dez. A dot placed above it shows that a finger not normally seen is prominent, usually because it is involved in the production of the sign. For example, Ȧ (ascii 'A) is a fist with the thumb extended, as in UȦᵗ not. Three dots or ticks over a letter shows the fingers are flexed, so that B⃛ (ascii ;B) is a flexed flat hand, and V⃛ (;V) is two flexed fingers. The forearm tab sign prefixed to the dez (ascii j) shows that the forearms are prominent in the production of the sign, as in Bɑ jB^ω tree.

Sig (movement) and dez orientation

The movement of the hand, or sig, is written with superscripted letters after the dez, as D# (any dez D which closes). Multiple movement sigs are arranged linearly when the movements are sequential, as in TD×∨× (any dez D which touches a tab T, moves down, and touches again),1 but stacked one above the other when signed simultaneously, as in TD×ͮ (a dez which moves down while in contact with the tab).2

A dot placed above the sig indicates that the motion is sharp, as in TD×̇ (sharp contact by the dez D),3 while a dot placed after the sig indicates that the motion is repeated, as in TD×· (repeated contact by the dez; TDx" in ASCII).

A tilde with a two-hand dez, TDDs~, indicates that first one hand performs the sig, then the other. Without the tilde, both hands are understood to act together.

A subset of the sig symbols used for motion are also used to indicate the orientation of the hand. In this use they are subscripted after the dez instead of superscripted, as in D# (any dez D which starts off closed).4 Stokoe analyzed the orientation of the hand as part of the tab, the handshape.

Movement (sig) Orientation (dez)
UnicodeASCIIStokoe*Description UnicodeASCIIStokoe*Description
DʌD^D^moving upward Dʌ^DD^facing or pointing upward
DvDvDvmoving downward DvvDDvfacing or pointing downward
DɴDwmoving up and down
D>D>D>to the dominant side D>>DD>facing the dominant side
D<D<D<to the center or non-dominant side D<<DD<facing the center or non-dominant side
DDzDᶻside to side
DDtDᵗtoward signer DtDDtfacing signer
DDfDfaway from signer DfDDffacing away from signer
DᶦDmD=to and fro
DɑDaDasupinate (turn palm up) DɑaDDasupine (palm facing up)
DɒDbDᵇpronate (turn palm down) DɒbDDbprone (palm facing down)
DωDgDwtwist wrist back & forth
DᵑDrDⁿnod hand, bend wrist DŋrDDnbent wrist
D[D′]D*[D′]D][D′]open up (resulting Dez D’ shown in brackets) D*DD]open
D#[D′]D#[D′]D#[D′]close (resulting Dez D’ shown in brackets) D##DD#closed
DDeDewriggle fingers
(symbol looks like a cursive e)
(symbol is a spiral)
D⁾⁽D)(D)approach, move together D₎₍)(DD)near
D×DxDxcontact, touch D×xDDxtouching
DD$Dglink, grasp D$DDglinked
DD+D+cross D+DD+crossed
DʘDoDoenter DʘoDDoinside
Dʻʼ or D&D(exchange positions

* Proper display requires installation of the Stokoe font available at the external link below.

1 TDx-v-x in ASCII
2 TDxv in ASCII
3 TDx! in ASCII
4 Closing hand and closed hand would be D# and #D in the ASCII system.

Several linguists, including, Kyle & Woll, state that Stokoe's tab conflates two parameters, handshape and orientation, and split off ori (orientation of the hand) as a fourth parameter. Kendon, however, notes how this greatly complicates the phonological description of signs, and prefers to retain orientation as an aspect of the handshape, with changes of orientation analysed as other changes in the hands, rather than as changes in an independent parameter.

Relative location

When the tab is a hand shape, or the dez consists of two hands, a symbol may be placed between the two letters to indicate their relative position. These include a few of the movement/orientation letters above. In addition, there are symbols to indicate position above, below, next to, and behind: the underscore on the B in B L shows that the L hand is placed under a B hand, with or without contact, etc.

Unicode ASCII* Description
B̲ AB A(underline) A under B
B̅ AB A(overline) A over B
BˡBB|BB next to B
AAA\AA behind A
BBB+BB hands or forearms cross
FFF$FF hands (fingers) clasped or linked
5ʘG5oGG hand (finger) within 5 hand (between fingers)

* The free font does not cover these symbols


This is the ASL word snake in Stokoe notation:

The first letter, ᴗ (like a U), shows that the word is signed at the lower face (mouth or chin). The second, V⃛ɒ, shows that the hand has the shape of a fingerspelled "V". The V has two diacritics: the three dots above it show that the fingers are bent (curled), while the subscript ɒ shows that the hand is held with the back of the hand facing up. The last letters, @
, are a compound sig: the spiral shows a circular motion, and the tack ˔ underneath shows that the motion proceeds outward. This is a mimetic sign for 'snake', mimicking the motion of a fanged snake.[5] It is alphabetized under to the tab U, then by the dez V, then by the sig @; the searcher does not need to know what it means or that it is glossed with the English word snake in order to look it up.

Following is a passage from Goldilocks:

BɑBɑz~√V⃛√V⃛ ɑ̇•Ʒ[]√C√Cv
The story "Goldilocks and the Three Bears". Deep in
the woods, there is a house sitting on a hill. (If you) go in,
(you will see) there Papa Bear reading the paper.

Published use of Stokoe notation

The first use of Stokoe notation appeared in the ASL Dictionary compiled by William Stokoe, for which it was devised. Other indigenous sign language dictionary projects, for example the Dictionary of British Sign Language/English, ed. David Brien, pub. Faber and Faber 1992, and Signs of a Sexual Nature have included Stokoe notation. The notation has also been used to analyze Australian Aboriginal sign languages. These non-ASL projects have had to extend the notation to cover phonemes not found in ASL.

See also

  • ASL-phabet, a simplified notation used in ASL-English dictionaries for Deaf children and Deaf education
  • HamNoSys, a phonetic notational system used primarily for linguistic research
  • SignWriting, a popular system that arranges symbols in a two-dimensional space rather than in a line
  • si5s


  1. Kyle et al. 1985:88
  2. Stokoe, William C. 1960. Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf, Studies in linguistics: Occasional papers (No. 8). Buffalo: Dept. of Anthropology and Linguistics, University of Buffalo.
  3. Stokoe, William C.; Dorothy C. Casterline; Carl G. Croneberg. 1965. A dictionary of American sign languages on linguistic principles. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet College Press
  4. Kyle & Woll 1988:29
  5. Stokoe et al. 1965:168


  • Adam Kendon (1988) Sign Languages of Aboriginal Australia: Cultural, Semiotic and Communication Perspectives, Cambridge University Press.
  • Jim G. Kyle, Bencie Woll, Gloria Pullen, and Frank Maddix (1985) Sign Language: The Study of Deaf People and Their Language. Cambridge University Press.
  • William C. Stokoe, Dorothy C. Casterline, Carl G. Croneberg (1965) A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles. Washington, DC: Gallaudet College Press.
  • David Brien, editor, (1992) Dictionary of British Sign Language/English, Faber and Faber
  • Mandel, Mark A. (1993). "ASCII-Stokoe Notation: A Computer-Writeable Transliteration System for Stokoe Notation of American Sign Language". Cracks and Shards. Archived from the original on 2011-08-07. Retrieved 2016-04-29. 
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