Chapter 1. Sublexical structure

A sign in Spanish Sign Language (LSE) is a lexical element with internal structure. Signs can be broken down into smaller units called parameters, which are sublexical elements. Parameters form syllables, and syllables form signs. Most signs in LSE are monosyllabic, consisting of one syllable (Herrero Blanco, 2009).

In LSE, there are five groups of phonological parameters: handshape, orientation, location, movement, and non-manual components. Some signs have a neutral or non-specific non-manual component.

To illustrate the integration of these parameters into a single sign, let's study the phonological structure of the sign FAVOURITE:

  • Handshape: fist.
  • Orientation: palm of the hand directed towards the final point of movement.
  • Location: the sign starts at the mouth and ends in the space in front of the signer's body.
  • Movement: straight forward and downward.
  • Non-manual components: kiss.

Each parameter, when combined, contributes to the meaning of a sign.

While individual parameters do not have meaning on their own, they allow for distinguishing meanings. We can determine if parameters are contrastive by examining minimal pairs, which are two signs that differ in one parameter and have different meanings. For example, MONDAY and TUESDAY in LSE are a minimal pair, differing only in handshape.

Spanish Sign Language, like any language, has a limited number of phonemes or parameters. A phoneme or parameter can have different articulatory variants that do not change the meaning. For example, the handshape for FAVOURITE can be a closed fist with the thumb crossed over bent fingers2.pngor with the thumb touching the index finger1.png.

Both handshapes can be used to sign FAVOURITE without a change in meaning. The choice of handshape may depend on factors such as neighbouring signs or signing speed.

In this phonology chapter, we focus on contrastive phonological forms rather than exploring all articulatory variations (phonetics).

Villameriel García, S. (2023). Phonology: 1. Sublexical structure. In S. Villameriel García (Ed.), Gramática de la Lengua de Signos Española (GramLSE) / Grammar of Spanish Sign Language (GramLSE). Real Patronato sobre Discapacidad. Retrieved Month DD, YYYY, from