Idioms in American Sign Language
American Sign Language (ASL) is the main language of members of the Deaf community in the United States. One component of their language is the use of idioms. The validity of these idioms have often been questioned or confused with metaphorical language. It is important to first define the term idiom as, "A speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements," (Idiom, 2007). The following examples are written in ASL glossing. These idioms further validate ASL as a language unique and independent of English. Idioms in ASL bond people in the Deaf community because they are expressions that only in-group members can understand.
"TRAIN GO SORRY" is one of the most widely-used idioms and is similar to the English idiom You missed the boat (Cohen, 1995). Another variation of this idiom is "CIGARETTE-GONE" (Vicars, 2005).
"COW-IT" is roughly translated into I don't care for [something] (Schmidt, 2007).
"I-I-I," the letter, not "ME," signed repeatedly with alternating hands on the chest is an idiom that is translated into the English word egotistical (Duncan et al.).
However, even examples like "COW-IT" and "I-I-I" remain somewhat controversial. There is some ambiguity in defining and identifying idioms in American Sign Language as little is known of ASL’s use of idioms. Cokely & Baker-Shenk, (1980), write, “it is interesting to note that ASL seems to have very few widely-used idioms, according to the standard definition of ‘idiom.’” (Cokley & Baker-Shenk, 1980: 119).
In their examination of how interpreters approach ASL idioms Santiago and Barrick (2007) cite Rosenthal's (1978) definition of idiom to frame their research:
“1. Idioms consist of at least two or more words, which may or may not be contiguous, inflected or in a specific order. 2. Idioms are recurrent constructs...(Some degree of recurrence is necessary to distinguish idioms from metaphors and other style figures).” (Rosenthal, 1978: 1).
This is important because some constructs like "COW-IT" and "CIGARETTE-GONE" may not have the incidence of recurrence needed to truly be considered ASL idioms.
Indeed some authors have noticed that many signs that people often think are idioms in ASL i.e. OUT-OF-SIGHT, ON-THE-FENCE, FUNNY NONE/FUNNY ZERO, are in fact either sign compounds with transparent meaning (FUNNY NONE means “not funny”) or single sense lexical items that either cannot be translated into English by using a single lexical item, or whose translation requires an English idiom. According to Battison in Valli and Lucas 1998, “We can show that things that are often called sign ‘idioms’: are often just ordinary signs that are difficult to translate into English” (Battison, 1998, p. 225). When compared to the sign “SUCCEED” which is made with two movements, the sign “AT-LAST” is one sharp movement and has historically been called an ASL idiom for the very reason of its non-translatability. But Battison purports that because the “two signs are made differently (they) have different meanings…they are two separate signs.” By “misusing” the term idiom in application to American Sign Language, the result is an “obscure” understanding of how “the language really works and it make(s) it seem as if the language is unstructured and simple. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth” (Battison 1998, p. 225).
- Cohen, L. (1995). Train Go Sorry. New York, NY: Vintage.
- Duncan et al. "ASL Idioms." ASLpro.com Retrieved October 6, 2007 from
- Bottesini et al. "asl idioms" Alldeaf.com AllDeaf Forums Retrieved 5 July 2009
- idiom. (n.d.) from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved October 6, 2007
- Schmidt, M. (2007). ASL Story. Oh, I see.Blogspot.com Retrieved October 6, 2007
- Vicars, W. (2005). "Idioms in ASL." American Sign Language University Retrieved October 6, 2007
- Cokely, D., & Baker-Shenk, C. (1980). American Sign Language: A Teacher's Resource Text on Curriculum, Methods and Evaluation. Silver Spring, MD: T.J. Publishers.
- Valli, C., & Lucas, C. (1998). Linguistics of American Sign Language: An Introduction. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
- Metzger, M. & Fleetwood, E. (Eds.) (2007) Translation, Sociolinguistic, and Consumer Issues in Interpreting (Studies in Interpretation Series, Vol. 3) Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press