Although American Sign Language, used by 250,000 people in the United States, is widely recognized as a rich, complex language, ASL learners and researchers have never enjoyed the kind of large, comprehensive database available in other languages—until now.
A new database of 1,000-plus ASL signs and their lexical and phonological properties, developed by students and faculty at Tufts University and the Laboratory for Language and Cognitive Neuroscience at San Diego State University, won first place late last month in the people’s choice interactive category of the National Science Foundation’s 2017 Vizzies: Visualization Challenge, which recognizes visual conceptualizations that help general audiences understand complex ideas in science and engineering.
Called ASL-LEX, the project is the largest and most thorough database of ASL signs and meanings to date and is already being used by schools including the Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham, Massachusetts, and Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston, Massachusetts, according to Ariel Goldberg, an associate professor of psychology who heads the Psycholinguistics and Linguistics Lab at Tufts.
“The database will have a broad appeal for psychologists, linguists and others who are working on the science of language and doing their own experiments,” said Goldberg, whose former doctoral student, Naomi Caselli, G15, began creating the database for her dissertation in cognitive science.
Caselli was studying ASL “rhymes” or “neighbors”—signs that resemble one another in “sign form,” such as shape or type of movement. For instance, the sign for apple and the sign for onion are “rhymes” because they are formed in the same way except apple is produced on the cheek and onion is produced at eye level.
Working with Goldberg and Tufts students fluent in ASL, Caselli developed a coding system that indicates various aspects of “sign form,” including where a sign is made on the body, whether it uses one or both hands, and how the fingers move. She also included information about how frequently each sign is used in everyday conversation, how much a sign resembles the object or action it represents, and what grammatical class the sign belongs to.