21 Basic Sign Language Signs With Pictures
What are the odds that even though you may have never seen sign language, you actually know some? Quite high, actually! It happens all the time. We’re a world that loves words, languages, and visual cues. In America, English speakers speak different languages all the time. When we say things like "pizza," "deja vu," and "et cetera," we’ve borrowed words from other languages and made them part of our daily use.
Sign language, on the other hand, is entirely visual. It’s all about gesturing, miming, and bringing out your body language. People who use their hands when they speak often don’t realize that some of the gestures they're using can actually be signs. So, what are some signs you do inadvertently know?
Some of what I include here will probably make you want to smack me. After all, several are quite obvious. However, they are words that are an important part of the language, and for that reason, they’re still going to get listed.
Hi / ByeClick thumbnail to view full-size
1. Hi / Bye
I told you a few were going to be obvious! Greetings and partings are often the most animated part of the entire conversation in sign language. Generally, waving is a given for both.
Hello is sometimes done in a very specific saluting manner by signers. They will directly touch their hand to their temple and move outward in a wave.
RainClick thumbnail to view full-size
I've seen people mime out the word rain. I don't mean they exaggerate effects for the deaf people, I mean they will actually do it to other hearing people, too. The hearing people I associate with are visual and always in motion by nature. Often, this one is very easy to get correct.
Just start at the top with both hands, fingers splayed. Bring them down, slightly wiggling your fingers, to give wavy effects of drizzle.
Context is key here, too. If you're talking about a hard rain or a serious torrent, a straight diagonal slash with both hands shows what you're talking about.
DrinkClick thumbnail to view full-size
I think it's funny when people at parties or crowded functions will exaggerate their motions to get themselves across when words are hard to hear for ANYONE. My dad has this weird thing about using one sign for alcohol AND drink. See to the right for that funny bit.
However, the correct sign is just making your hand look like you're holding a cup and tipping it towards your mouth. Really, that's all.
An added detail would be saying what is the drink specifically, like milk or water. Look at number 8 for the milk sign.
This is one of those universal signs. People don't realize it is a correct one for English/American sign language as well. This sign is also for eat.
There are also variations, but the most simple one that most people know is where you touch four fingers to the thumb. Touch those fingers to your lips. Doing that only once is good enough. For effect, signers will tap several times to give variations equal to syllables spoken.
Eat - tap once.
Eating - tap twice. ESL (straight English as opposed to ASL) will tap once, and then spell in "ing" for the ending. Another way is to tap once, and then bring out the pinky finger to give an 'ing' effect.
This particular sign is not to be confused with 'hungry'. The 'hungry' sign is completely different, although it's at a similar location in similar manner.
Take your index finger and draw a line from the bottom of your chin to the base of your throat.
The common thing I'm used to verbally saying out loud is, "What did you say?" or "What did that guy say?" So, this word is very much part of my daily vocabulary. I also inadvertently put my index finger under my lip and bring it out, which is a 'Say' sign.
I've noticed many hearing people do this, as well. People who are around me often figure out that it is a sign and it does communicate to me, especially as they try to give more visual cues to what they're saying to assist me. So, they will sign a few words out of a dozen as they talk, and 'Say' is always one of those words. "That guy said..."
I Love You
7. I Love You
There are two most common love signs in the world. There is the love where your arms cross at your chest, and there is "I Love You" with one hand and three fingers splayed.
The first one is so very simple and so very obvious. To say I love you with this, point at yourself, sign 'Love', and then point at your loved one.
The second one is lesser known with many hearing people and are often mistaken for 'Rock on' or devil horns. The difference is, I love you involves your thumb. The horns do not.
MilkClick thumbnail to view full-size
This sign is a source of amusement. I've had friends who thought they were just being silly and would mime milking a cow to me. I would say, "That's actually a sign, believe it or not".
A signer will also just use one hand to "milk an udder". If you want to get very simple and ask someone if they want to drink milk, just sign "Drink milk" and give a quizzical expression like you would when asking a question.
I would ask a friend, "Are you going to ...?" They would reply, "Maybe" and sometimes accompany it with a motion where the hands look like they are balancing something.
Other times, they will just shrug both shoulders and hold out both hands, which can also be construed as "Sure" or "I don't know".
All of the above are applicable signs that does mean something to the deaf users or signers in general.
Know / Don't Know
10. Know / Don't Know
When frustrated, I've seen a lot of people touch their hand to their temple and move it away. That's "I don't know." There is also the "know" sign where they just touch their hand to their temple.
Similar to number 10, forget is like swiping memory from your brain. So, people will just swipe their hand across their forehead when telling me they "forgot." The correct usage that I'm familiar with is folding your hand after it passes your forehead. But it all works!
Okay, I am so used to this sign, too. Don't judge!
I've had strangers ask me if I smoked and, if they want to gesture, they will bring their fingers to their lips in a smoking motion.
This sign can work like this:
- "Do you smoke?"
- "Do you have a cigarette?"
I have seen three variations of this sign used by unwitting people who are not signers. All three are correct.
The first one is a simple padding of both hands.
The second one is using three fingers splayed on each hand and making a walking motion.
And the third is using two fingers to walk across something. A variation of this one, in specific, is having those two fingers walk across your arm.
SkyClick thumbnail to view full-size
Sky is above and expansive and all around. The sign expresses that and many people use it without realizing they're doing sign language.
It just takes one hand and it doesn't matter if you use left or right. Just take a hand, begin in the opposite direction of that hand, and arc it over your head in a backhanded motion. There you have the sky.
Baby is another universal sign. They are to be held, admired, loved, and carried. They are small and fit into the crook of your arm. Thus, the sign is to mime holding a baby in front of your chest.
Do not use this sign when using 'baby' as an endearment for an older child, a mate, or another person. There is a different sign for that one altogether, which is also a sign for "sweetheart."
Children come in all heights, so they really have no one-size-fits-all sign like "baby." So, hold your hand out at your side to mime a height of a child. The limit would be at just a little over 4 feet. However, a tall kid gets a tall sign.
You do have to consider the age. If you're not talking about a child, but a small adult, make a distinction. Sign "adult," if you know it, or just point to the person, silly!
Link / Connected
17. Link / Connected
A connection is another universal symbol. You see the symbol used for formatting capsules or html in forum posts? It looks like a chain sometimes. That is your average sign for link or connection. It can be used in reference to friendship, but friendship also has its own sign that is somewhat similar.
Make a loop with your index finger and your thumb on both hands. Open one just enough to close with another loop as you bring them together. There is your connection.
Obvious AlphabetClick thumbnail to view full-size
18. Obvious Alphabet
Some alphabet in Sign Language doesn't make sense to a non-signer or someone just beginning to learn sign language.. But there are plenty that are obvious. Here are some of the most obvious letters: c, d, i, j, l, o, u, v, y, and z.
D and F get mixed up. One thing to remember is the D is smooth. F has more lines sticking out.
Shirt / Clothes
19. Shirt / Clothes
People will generally move their hands down their body in reference to clothing or a dress. As for shirts, try not to mistake it for the word 'volunteer'. It's all in the context, really. Just pinch a piece of your shirt in the front and tug at it, or mime doing so.
Here is another universal sign. While the shape of a book has taken on an electronic form these days, the sign remains the same. Mime opening a book with both hands and you are signing 'a book'. Sign a letter 'e' before opening a book for e-book.
21. See / Look
People gesture pretty close to how the signs are supposed to be.
For See - They will have a v with the index and the middle fingers, then bring it out from both eyes. This works. However, a variation of what I use is just having a V at one eye and bring it out that way to "see."
For Look - Just have that V pointing outward instead of inward.