Signing Etiquette

Last week I had posted a bit about how much more there is to sign language then what meets the eye and that because of this I have chosen to separate the information. Later I will be posting the physical signs that I have learned today I am just focusing on some conversation etiquette and other things that may not be immediately considered when thinking of ASL

Where are you looking?

When having a vocal conversation it is common courtesy to look the person in the face and hold eye-contact (but please don’t forget to blink).  But hearing people often have questions on where to look during a conversation thinking you should be looking at the person’s hands directly to follow the signing. But as I have learned this week this is once again WHAT NOT TO DO. Instead, you should be maintaining eye contact and looking for facial cues. Many Deaf people while signing will mouth some or all words that they are signing which can be helpful to hearies or those who are first learning ASL. The mouthing of these words can also be useful when people are using true ASL and not initializes singing.

I know what an Icon is but what is Iconicity?

Honestly, as I was able to understand Iconicity in ASL I got curious about what this would appear to be in a spoken language. It was a harder concept to wrap my head around and because of this, I am only going to share the very basic understanding I have. But PLEASE if anyone else has a better understanding please share it with me.

Examples in English:

  • Onomatopeias: moo, oink, meow, roar chirp (words that create the sound they are referring to)
  • “long” → a series of long, smooth sounds (creates a sound that corresponds with the word definition itself)
  • “ee”→ this “ee” sound is often corresponding with meanings such as small: tiny, itty, bitty, teeny, weenie

When signing this idea of iconicity takes a slightly different turn. 

  • Words having to do with emotions are generally done in the chest area ( happy, angry, feel)
  • Words having to do with cognitive abilities are generally done on or near the temple (think, know, understand)


ASL often creates “adverbs” by simply reflecting existing signs. Adverbs can be done in signs, facial expressions, modifications in the way we move a sign, or in the length of time we hold a sign in one place.

One adverb that is often ‘ignored’ is the word “VERY”

Using very:

  • Spoken: I am very happy to be finished the semester
  • Signed: I very happy semester finish

Not using very [INFLICTION}: 

  • Sign: I happy semester finish
    • “happy” would be done in an exaggerated fashion, with a bigger movement
    • the person signing would use a more dramatic facial expression, maybe a quick glance upward

For example, suppose our friend got sunburned badly and I wanted to tell you about it, I might wish to express the concept:
“His face was very red.”
In that sentence, the word “very” is an adverb.  The word “red” is an adjective.
In ASL I’d use the signs:  “HIS FACE RED.”  To indicate the concept of “very red” I would “inflect” (change the way I signed) the concept “red” in the following ways:

  1. I’d use an intense facial expression
  2.  I’d hold the initial handshape in starting location for a fraction of an instant longer before starting the movement.
  3. I’d do a larger downward movement.
  4. I’d hold the ending handshape in the ending location for a fraction of an instant longer than normal.
  5.  At the beginning of the sign I’d tilt my head back slightly and then as I did the sign I’d nod my head using a single, short, quick movement.
  6. My elbow would stick slightly farther out to the side at the beginning of the sign and bring the elbow down sharply during the sign.

    Those six modifications (inflections) to the sign “RED” would change the sign to mean “very-RED.”  So you could call those six modifications “an adverb” or a combination of adverbs.



When signing there are a few ASL signs that when you reverse their orientation, you can express the opposite statement of the regular sign. These signs can be emphasized and clarified by also shaking your head no.

This works for 

  • Like → Don’t like
  • Know → Don’t know
  • Good → Bad
  • Want → Don’t want

Doesn’t work for 

  • Happy
  • Have
  • Wash

3 thoughts on “Signing Etiquette

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