American Sign Language/Idioms

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American Sign Language (ASL) is the main language of members of the Deaf community in the United States. One major 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 members of the in-group 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).

"FINISH-TOUCH" is the ASL idiom that is similar to the English phrase, Been there, done that, (Vicars, 2005).

"I-I-I" signed repeatedly on the chest is an idiom that is translated into the English word egotistical, (Duncan et al.).


Cohen, L. (1995). Train Go Sorry. New York, NY: Vintage.

Duncan et al. "ASL Idioms." ASL Pro. Retrieved October 6, 2007 from [1]

idiom. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved October 6, 2007, from [2]

Schmidt, M. (2007). ASL Story. Oh, I see. Retrieved October 6, 2007, from [3]

Vicars, W. (2005). "Idioms in ASL." American Sign Language University. Retrieved October 6, 2007, from [4]