Definition: The smallest contrastive unit of a sign language.
This is a draft version of Fabian Bross (2015): “Chereme”. In: Hall, T. A. Pompino-Marschall, B.
(ed.): Dictionaries of Linguistics and Communication Science (Wörterbücher zur Sprach- und
Kommunikationswissenschaft, WSK). Volume: Phonetics and Phonology. Berlin, New York:
Mouton de Gruyter.
A feature that is believed to be common to all natural languages is called ‘double articulation’,
which means that the morphemes of a language are built through a combination of smaller units
which do not mean anything by themselves (MARTINET 1949; HOCKETT 1960). In other words, every
language consists of a given set of meaningless units (i.e. phonemes), which can be combined to
bigger units having a meaning (i.e. morphemes). Until the 1960s it was generally believed that sign
languages do not exhibit this feature. Manual signs were considered to be holistic units, resembling
pantomime rather than being composed like words or morphemes in spoken languages (e.g.
This view changed dramatically when the US-American linguist William STOKOE (1960)
demonstrated in his seminal work that the manual signs in American Sign Language (ASL) could be
segmented into a given subset of smaller units sharing all the defining features of spoken languages’
phonemes—with the obvious exception that they are produced with the signer’s fingers, hands, and
body. STOKOE called these units ‘cheremes’, derived from the Ancient Greek word kheír for ‘hand’
(STOKOE, CASTERLINE & CRONENBERG 1965). STOKOE distinguished between three classes of
distinctive features used to build up a sign: handshape, location, and movement. Changing one
feature, which is meaningless alone, can lead to the formation of a minimal pair. BATTISON (1978)
added hand orientation as a fourth parameter because he observed that there changes in the
orientation of the hand can lead to minimal pairs, too. Like in spoken languages, each sign language
has its own sets of cheremes and like in spoken languages each sign language exhibit phonotactic
rules, i.e. rules that constrain the combinations of cheremes. Fig. 1 shows the sign for PERSON and
the sign for the modal verb MUST in German Sign Language (DGS) which only differ in handshape.
Fig. 2 shows the signs for NEWSPAPER and COAT in DGS which only differ in (the direction of the)
Some researchers also suggest that non-manual markers produced with the face can be regarded as a
fifth parameter. In some sign languages, mouthing, i.e. the silent production of visible syllables
which broadly resemble those of the surrounding spoken language, are used to disambiguate signs
which are otherwise similar. This is mainly the case in sign language which arose in countries
where the use of sign language was suppressed by society. As can be seen in the figures mouthing is
used in DGS. For example the signs GERMANY and POLICE can just be distinguished through the
STOKOE (1960) suggested to call the study of sign language cheremes ‘chereology’ as a counterpart
to spoken languages phonology. Today neither the term chereme nor the term chereology is used.
Instead researchers agreed on talking about phonemes and phonology in sign languages too,
although both terms are derived from the Greek word for sound. The reason for these terms is to
stress the structural similarities in the organization between signed and spoken languages, instead of
emphasizing the differences by terminology.
Fig. 1: The signs MUST (modal verb) and PERSON the in DGS
Fig. 2: The signs for NEWSPAPER and COAT in DGS
BATTISON, R. (1978): Lexical Borrowing in American Sign Language. Silver Spring: Linstok.
BLOOMFIELD, L. (1933): Language. London: Allen & Unwin.
HOCKETT, C. F. (1960): The origin of speech. In: Scientific American, 203(3). 89-96.
MARTINET, A. (1949): La double articulation linguistique. In: Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de
Copenhague, 5. 30-37.
STOKOE, W. C. (1960): Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the visual communication systems
of the American deaf. Buffalo: Department of Anthropology and Linguistics, University of Buffalo.
STOKOE, W. C., CASTERLINE, D. & CRONEBERG, C. (1965): A dictionary of American Sign Language
on Linguistic Principles. Washington: Gallaudet College Press.