21 Basic Sign Language Signs and Meanings With Pictures - Owlcation - Education
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21 Basic Sign Language Signs and Meanings With Pictures

I'm a deaf individual who wears a cochlear implant. Did you know there are some signs you might know, even without realizing it?

Here I am finger-spelling "love."

Here I am finger-spelling "love."

An artist's take on the sign for "love."

An artist's take on the sign for "love."

What are the odds that even though you may never have seen sign language, you actually know a few words? Quite high, actually! It happens all the time. We’re a world that loves words, languages, and visual cues. In the United States, English speakers use 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 common vocabulary.

Sign language, on the other hand, is entirely visual. It’s all about gesturing, miming, and using body language. People who use their hands when they speak often don’t realize that some of the gestures they're using are actually signs, as well. So, what are some signs you know—even if you don't realize it?

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 sign language, and for that reason, I've included them here.

"Hello" part 1: Touch your hand to your temple.

"Hello" part 1: Touch your hand to your temple.

"Hello" part 2: Move your hand outward in a wave.

"Hello" part 2: Move your hand outward in a wave.

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.

"Rain" part 1: Start at the top with both hands, fingers splayed.

"Rain" part 1: Start at the top with both hands, fingers splayed.

"Rain" part 2: Bring your hands down, slightly wiggling your fingers, to give wavy effects of drizzle.

"Rain" part 2: Bring your hands down, slightly wiggling your fingers, to give wavy effects of drizzle.

2. Rain

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 with 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 illustrates what you're talking about.

"Drink": Make your hand look like you're holding a cup and tip it towards your mouth.

"Drink": Make your hand look like you're holding a cup and tip it towards your mouth.

This sign means "drunk" (as in, intoxicated). The funny thing is that my dad does this for everything. He'll ask, "You want a Coke?" and he'll make this sign!

This sign means "drunk" (as in, intoxicated). The funny thing is that my dad does this for everything. He'll ask, "You want a Coke?" and he'll make this sign!

3. Drink

I think it's funny when people at parties or crowded functions will exaggerate their motions to make themselves understood when it's really noisy and hard to hear anything. My dad has this weird thing where he uses the sign for "drunk" (as in, intoxicated) when he really means "drink" (as in, to consume a beverage).

However, the correct sign for "drink" is just making your hand look like you're holding a cup and tipping it towards your mouth. Really, that's all.

An added clarification would be to indicate the specific type of drink—like milk or water. See number eight, below, for the milk sign.

"Food" and "Eat": Touch four fingers to the thumb and then touch your lips.

"Food" and "Eat": Touch four fingers to the thumb and then touch your lips.

4. Food/Eat

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 used to convey "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. If you tap twice, you're indicating an extra syllable and saying "eating."

  • Eat: Tap once.
  • Eating: Tap twice. ESL (straight English as opposed to ASL) will tap once, and then spell "ing" for the ending. Another way to do it is to tap once, and then bring out the pinky finger to give an "ing" effect.
"Thirsty": Take your index finger and draw a line from the bottom of your chin to the base of your throat.

"Thirsty": Take your index finger and draw a line from the bottom of your chin to the base of your throat.

5. Thirsty

This particular sign is not to be confused with "hungry." The "hungry" sign is completely different, although it's made at a similar location has a similar motion.

Take your index finger and draw a line from the bottom of your chin to the base of your throat.

"Say": Put your index finger under your lip and bring it out.

"Say": Put your index finger under your lip and bring it out.

6. Say

I use this sign a lot when I say, "What did you say?" or "What did that guy say?" So, this sign is very much part of my daily vocabulary. To make this sign, I put my index finger under my lip and bring it out.

I've noticed many hearing people do this, as well. People who spend time around me often figure out that it is a sign, especially as they try to help me by providing more visual cues to aid communication. I've noticed that people naturally pick up on this sign. They'll put their finger under their lip and tell me, "That guy said..."

"Love": Cross your arms at your chest.

"Love": Cross your arms at your chest.

"I love you": Hold up one hand with your thumb, index finger, and pinkie finger splayed. (In contrast, devil horns do not involve the thumb.)

"I love you": Hold up one hand with your thumb, index finger, and pinkie finger splayed. (In contrast, devil horns do not involve the thumb.)

7. Love/I Love You

These are two of the most common signs in the world. To sign "love," cross your arms at your chest. To sign "I love you," hold up one hand with your thumb, index finger, and pinkie finger splayed.

You can actually say "I love you" with the "love" sign, too. First, you point at yourself, then sign "love," and then point at your loved one.

The second "I love you" sign is lesser-known with many hearing people, and it's often mistaken for "rock on" or devil horns. The difference is, the "I love you" sign involves your thumb. The devil horns sign does not.

"Milk": Mime milking a cow.

"Milk": Mime milking a cow.

You can also take a shortcut and use just one hand to "milk an udder."

You can also take a shortcut and use just one hand to "milk an udder."

8. Milk

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 tell them, "That's actually a sign, believe it or not!"

You can also take a shortcut and use just one hand to "milk an udder." Also, if you want to ask someone if they'd like to drink milk, just sign "drink milk" and give a quizzical expression like you would when asking a question.

9. Maybe

I might ask a friend if they're going to do something, and they might reply, "maybe," and bring their hands up to look like they are balancing something.

Or they might just shrug their 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 do mean something to people who are deaf or signers in general.

"Know:" Touch your hand to your temple.

"Know:" Touch your hand to your temple.

"I don't know": Touch your hand to your temple and then move it away.

"I don't know": Touch your hand to your temple and then move it away.

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 the sign for "I don't know." To sign "know," just touch your hand to your temple.

"Forget" part 1: Swipe your hand across your forehead.

"Forget" part 1: Swipe your hand across your forehead.

"Forget" part 2: Fold your hand after it passes your forehead.

"Forget" part 2: Fold your hand after it passes your forehead.

11. Forget

Similar to "know" and "I don't know," the sign for "forget' looks like wiping a 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!

"Cigarette": Bring your fingers to your lips in a smoking motion.

"Cigarette": Bring your fingers to your lips in a smoking motion.

12. Cigarette

Okay, so I use this sign a lot, too. Don't judge!

I've had strangers ask me if I smoked, and when tried to indicate what they meant with a gesture, they would naturally bring their fingers to their lips in a smoking motion.

This sign can work for both "Do you smoke?" and "Do you have a cigarette?"

13. Walk

I have seen three variations of this sign used unwittingly by people who are not signers. All three are correct.

  1. Place both hands, palms down, in front of you. Move them back and forth in a padding motion.
  2. Use three fingers splayed on each hand and make a walking motion.
  3. Use two fingers to walk across something. A variation of this is to use those two fingers to walk across your arm.
"Sky" part 1: Hold your arm out diagonally in front of your body.

"Sky" part 1: Hold your arm out diagonally in front of your body.

"Sky" part 2: Arc your arm over your head in a backhanded motion.

"Sky" part 2: Arc your arm over your head in a backhanded motion.

14. Sky

The sky is above us and it is expansive. The sign for this word expresses these characteristics, and many people use it without realizing they're using the actual sign.

It just takes one hand, and it doesn't matter if it's the left or the 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": Mime holding a baby in front of your chest.

"Baby": Mime holding a baby in front of your chest.

15. Baby

Baby is another universal sign. Babies are 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 a term of endearment for an older child, a mate, or another person. The sign to use in that situation is entirely different; it is the sign for "sweetheart."

"Child": Hold your hand out at your side to mime the height of a child.

"Child": Hold your hand out at your side to mime the height of a child.

16. Child

Children come in all heights, so there's not really a one-size-fits-all sign like "baby." Hold your hand out at your side to mime the height of a child. The limit would be just a little over four 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 rather a small adult, make a distinction. Sign "adult," if you know it, or just point to the person, silly!

"Link/Connected": 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.

"Link/Connected": 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.

17. Link/Connected

A connection is another universal symbol. You know the symbol used for formatting capsules or inserting links in text? Often, the icon looks like a chain. A chain is also the basis for the sign for this word. 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.

"Shirt": Just pinch a piece of your shirt in the front and tug at it, or mime doing so.

"Shirt": Just pinch a piece of your shirt in the front and tug at it, or mime doing so.

"Cothing" or "dress": Move your hands down your body.

"Cothing" or "dress": Move your hands down your body.

18. 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.

19. Book

Here is another universal sign. Although many books have taken an electronic format these days, the sign reflects the traditional, bound version. Mime opening a book with both hands and you are signing "book." If you want to indicate "e-book," just sign the letter "e" before opening the book.

20. See/Look

People often guess a gesture that's pretty close to the actual signs for these two words.

  • See: Make a "v" with the index and the middle fingers, then bring it out from both eyes. Or make a "v" at one eye and bring it out.
  • Look: Make a "v" at your eye but point it outward instead of inward.

21. Obvious Alphabet Letters

Some alphabet letters in sign language don't make sense to a non-signer or someone just beginning to learn sign language. But there are plenty of letters that are obvious. Here are some of the most obvious letters: c, d, i, j, l, o, u, v, y, and z.

The letters D and F sometimes get mixed up. One thing to remember is the D is smooth. F has more lines sticking out.

More Resources

Comments

JJ on October 03, 2019:

At school we learnt sign language. I dont think it was called Auslan then.

Denise Bailey on November 24, 2017:

My mom is in the hospital. She was signing done and pointing to her head. What was she saying?

Kim on June 26, 2017:

My oldest son and I know sign language and we thought we were being sly, when talking in front of his new girlfriend and boy we're we both supprised when she jumped into the conversation. Boy we're we red in the face. Good thing I was only telling him I thought she was very nice and pretty too. And he commented she's smart and got a full time job and she's a grade younger than me, and that's when she jumped in and said what you thought you were the only one working full time. Lol. We had a great laugh and still laugh about it. I learned it in church my son chose that as his 2nd language.

Bobby from U.K on January 24, 2017:

This was really useful as a quick introduction, thank you. My partner is losing his hearing and we're going to be learning how to sign, but these ones we can pick up really easily and start using now.

rekrings on February 12, 2014:

being a metal head I felt insulted when you said that we mistaken I LOVE YOU for ROCK ON. Everyone knows thumb pointed out I LOVE YOU thumb pointed in ROCK ON

Levertis Steele on October 28, 2012:

Interesting and fun!

uh on October 15, 2012:

ooooooo

2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on October 17, 2010:

This is a very interesting hub! The photos are good, and your descriptions are amusing.

Susan Hazelton from Sunny Florida on October 10, 2010:

Great selection of sign language signs. I was surprized to see how many we all seem to use instinctively. Great hub.

SognoPiccolo from Wilmington, Ohio on October 08, 2010:

I had fun taking the pictures for this.... stoopid camera lol

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