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An ASL student asks, "What does it mean when I see a hash tag (#) in front of a sign in ASL textbooks?"

You have asked a very good question.
The answer is that a (#) in front of a word in an ASL textbook usually refers to "a fingerspelled version" of a sign that has been spelled so often (and typically at very high speed) that the letters have been smushed together and mutated so they now look like a single sign rather than individual fingerspelled letters.

This process is called lexicalization.

Lexicalization can be a bit complex but I will explain it to you and give you some examples. If you invest some time you will "get it."

I'm going to repeat things a few times (below) on purpose because the repetition will help you master the concept.

Here we go...

Let me give you a quick example of a lexicalized English word:  "goodbye"
Long ago "goodbye" used to actually be "God be with ye."  Then over time it was said so often that it got shortened to "goodbye."  That process of starting with a string of words and shortening them into a single word (goodbye) is an example of "lexicalization."

Lexicalization in American Sign Language (ASL)

People who study language are called linguists.

Linguists needed a word to describe "the process of making words by squishing a string of words, or words parts into one word -- and/or stealing "borrowing" a word from another language."


So, linguists built a word that means "the process of making words by squishing a string of words, or words parts into one word (or group of words that you treat as one concept) and/or borrowing a word from another language."


The word linguists came up with to mean "the process of making new words by squishing a string of existing words, or words parts into one new word (or group of words that you treat as one idea or thing) and/or borrowing a word from another language" is:  "lexicalization." 

Really. It is. "Lexicalization" means to turn a string of words (or word parts) into one word. (Or borrow a word from some other language).

Think of it like this.  Suppose the big bad wolf comes and blows down all three houses and the pigs chase the wolf off and then use parts of the three houses to build a new house.  Yay! They lexicalized themselves a new house.  Or maybe they just get pissed and go to "Wolf City" with a big tractor trailer rig and a crane and steal the wolf's house and bring it back to "Pig City" and start living in it.  Yay!  They just lexicalized themselves a house! 


Let's break "lexicalization" down*


"lex-" Think of the term "lex-" as basically meaning "a word."

"-ic" is used to turn a word into a noun or adjective


"-al" means "of the kind of" or "to be like"

"-ize" means "to make or become"

"-ation" means "an instance of something" -- or in other words "when something happens or an example of something"

"-ization" means "when something becomes or happens"


So...put all those meanings together you get something like:  "The process of becoming like a word."

Think of "lexicalization" as meaning "glue and hammer together other words or word parts into a new word" (or go steal I mean borrow a word from some other language).


The fancy words for "gluing and hammering" are affixation and compounding. (Affixing is when you glue a part of a word onto another word. For example "run" +"ing" = "running" is an example of affixation. Compounding is when you hammer two whole words into one word. For example, "green" + "house" = "greenhouse.")


The nice word for stealing is "borrowing."

 So, affixation, compounding, and borrowing are ways of making new words for a language.  They aren't the only ways but they are ways we are discussing right now.


Affixation, compounding, and borrowing are processes that let us build words. The process of building a word (out of other words or word parts) using affixation or compounding -- or borrowing a word from another language is called "lexicalization."

If you take some words or words parts and squeeze them, hammer them, sand them down into a word you have "lexicalized" those words or word parts into a word.  If you borrow a word from some other language and start using it as a word in your language you have "lexicalized" that word. 

"Lexicalize" means to make existing words become a new word -- or -- a sign. Yah. All of the above applies to making signs (as in sign language signs) too.

If you take a bunch of signs or parts of signs and you squish them down into one "sign" or maybe you steal borrow a sign from some other language you have "lexicalized" (made) a new sign.   Well, not you, you-- but rather the community of language users.  Don't "you" go deciding what to lexicalize --  but if the community does it feel free to use the new sign.

Review time!

Lexicalization in general refers to the process of squishing a string of words (or signs) or parts of words (or signs) into a single word (or sign).  Or just go "borrow" a sign from some other language.

That is not a very scientific definition but hey, it's basically right.

Now since American Sign Language linguists wanted a quick and easy way to tell other linguists "Hey, I'm going to use a lexicalized sign here!" -- they decided to start putting a hash mark in front of the typed or written label for the sign.  For example instead of writing or typing "DOG" they wrote "#DOG." 


You may be curious at this point just what exactly got squished to make a sign language dog? 

Good question!

The answer is:  The individual fingerspelled letters "D," "O," and "G," were all squished (or "lexicalized") into a quick smooth movement that basically looks like you are snapping your fingers. That movement is considered to be a "sign" that means "dog" and we type that as "#DOG."  When other ASL linguists, educated ASL teachers, and certain clever students who actually um "studied" see "#DOG" they know that it means the version of the sign for "dog" that consists of snapping the fingers (and they also know that at one point that sign used to be the fingerspelled letters  "D," "O," and "G" (even though the "#DOG" sign doesn't look much like fingerspelling anymore and instead just looks like a sign).


* Definitions source: Oxford dictionary

** Oh sure, if you look up "lex-" in a dictionary (such as that fine Oxford one) you might see that it means "law" -- but please think deeper.  A "lexicon" is a set of vocabulary. The "law" is a bunch of words.  Also, "lexeme" means "a basic lexical unit of a language, consisting of one word or several words, considered as an abstract unit" -- or in other words "a lexeme is a word or a group of words that you think of as a word."  Think of a lexeme as being "a word" or "a couple or few words glued together." (Scientific I know, right?)

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