Generally the list of classifier handshapes is a restricted, but somewhat large subset (with upwards of 10 members) of the handshapes used in a given language. Semantically speaking, sign languages have one or more classifier indicating a human referent (e.g. the /V/ in ASL, the /Y/ handshape in Thai Sign Language), a classifier for non-human animals (e.g. the bent-/V/ handshape in ASL), a number of inanimate classifiers based on shape (e.g. the /1/ handshape for long thin objects, the rounded /5/ handshape for ball-shaped objects), one or more vehicular classifiers (e.g. the /3/ handshape for bicycles, cars, boats, etc. in ASL) and the /ILY/ handshape for airplanes in ASL.
Sometimes a single handshape may in fact be considered as two separate classifier handshapes, distinguished, e.g., by orientation (e.g. the /V/ handshape: with fingertips pointing down it represents a SINGLE (upright) human being, while with fingertips pointing up it represented TWO upright) human beings (or other objects which are essentially long and thin and vertically oriented).
Classifier handshapes can further be divided into entity classifier handshapes and handling classifier handshapes As noted by Morgan (2005, 2009), incorporation of classifier handshapes generally follows an ergative-absolutive patterning, with the classifier representing the subject incorporated of intransitive verbs and the object incorporated for transitive verbs. A distinction, however, can be made between the type of classifier handshape incorporated in each of these instances. thus, for subjects of intransitive verbs the classifier is typically and entity classifier, while for the object of intransitive verbs the classifier is typically a handling classifier.
Although not normally considered classifier handshapes, number incorporation and initialized signs might also fruitfully be thought of as instances of classifier handshapes. In some sign languages, for example Nepali Sign Language, the latter initialized handshape incorporation is a rather productive morphological process within the lexicon.
- MW Morgan (2005). A Whole Language Typology of Japanese Sign Language, Sign Language Studies (Journal of Japanese Association of Sign Linguistics) 16: 13-43. download Note however, that in this paper I describe classifier incorporation as fitting an overall pattern of active-stative rather than ergative-absolutive patterning, a position I would modify somewhat now, although members of the Japanese Sign language family definitely have a pattern of incorporation which is more complex than in most other sign languages.
- MW Morgan (2009) Cross-Linguistic Typology of Argument Encoding in Sign Language Verbal Morphology. Paper presented at Association of Linguistic Typology, Berkeley