ASL-LEX: BU, Tufts, and San Diego State University Collaborate to Create First Web-Based ASL Lexicon

A collaboration between Boston University’s Naomi Caselli, Karen Emmorey and Zed Sevcikova Sehyr from San Diego State University’s Lab for Language and Cognitive Neuroscience, and Tufts University’s Ariel Cohen-Goldberg, ASL-LEX is an interactive lexical database that catalogues information about nearly 1,000 signs in American Sign Language (ASL).

ASL-LEX is the first lexical database for ASL, and enables researchers, educators, and students to explore the ASL lexicon. Children and adults can use it to augment their ASL acquisition, teachers an use it to assess and support ASL vocabulary development, and researchers can use ASL-LEX to develop experiments.

It includes information about how frequently the sign occurs in conversation, how iconic the sign is (how much it looks like what it means), and its grammatical class (e.g., noun, verb, adjective). Information about English translations is available for a subset of signs. In addition, phonological properties (e.g., the fingers used, the location and movement of the hand) were coded and used to identify signs that rhyme with one another.

Research based on the development of the ASL-LEX projects was published in the journal Behavior Research Methods in May of 2016, along with a video introducing ASL-LEX.

Naomi Caselli, a lecturer in deaf studies at BU School of Education, commented on how the database has impacted her classroom activity:

“I teach ASL Structure, a class on the linguistics of sign language. We have used the database to think about patterns in the forms of signs (e.g., some handshapes are physically possible to produce, but never occur in ASL). We have also used it to consider how the forms of signs vary by sign type (e.g., compound signs and fingerspelled signs don’t conform to the linguistic rules/patterns that other signs generally follow). I also used it to illustrate the idea that most signs are actually not very iconic–the forms of signs do not usually look like what they mean–even though some people have argued that ASL is just a set of very iconic gestures.”

“I also teach a course supervising our graduate students’ major papers. Last semester, they each did a project either applying or expanding ASL-LEX in some way. One student looked at what makes a pair of signs “rhyme” in ASL. She is interested in developing original nursery rhymes in ASL that capitalize on the relationships between signs, and studying whether and how ASL nursery rhymes can benefit deaf children.”