21 Basic Sign Language Signs With Pictures

Art of signed love.
Art of signed love. | Source

What are the odds that even though you may have never seen sign language, you actually know some? Quite a bit, actually! It happens all the time. We’re a world that loves words, languages, and visual cues. In America, the English speakers speak different languages all the time. When we say things like pizza, deja vu, and et cetera, we’ve taken the words from other languages and made it 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 that use their hands often don’t realize that some of the gestures they do can actually be signs. So, what are some sign language you inadvertently do know?

Some of what I put here will probably make you want to smack me.  After all, a few are quite obvious and are still an important part of the language.  They’re still going to get listed.

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Beginning of hi.
Beginning of hi.
Beginning of hi.

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.

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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 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.

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My dad does this for EVERYTHING.  "You wanna coke?"  "You wanna drink?"  This sign means DRUNK.  Not alcohol, DRUNK.  Alcohol has a different sign of its own.Cup to mouth, that's how ya do it.
My dad does this for EVERYTHING.  "You wanna coke?"  "You wanna drink?"  This sign means DRUNK.  Not alcohol, DRUNK.  Alcohol has a different sign of its own.
My dad does this for EVERYTHING. "You wanna coke?" "You wanna drink?" This sign means DRUNK. Not alcohol, DRUNK. Alcohol has a different sign of its own.
Cup to mouth, that's how ya do it.
Cup to mouth, that's how ya do it.

3. Drink

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.

4. Food

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.

For example:

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.


5. Thirsty

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.


6. Say

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..."

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.


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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 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.

9. Maybe

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.

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.

11. Forget

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!

12. Cigarettes

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?"

13. Walk

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.

14. Sky

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.

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15. Baby

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'.

16. Child

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!

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.

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.

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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.

20. Book

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.

Comments 6 comments

SognoPiccolo profile image

SognoPiccolo 6 years ago from Wilmington, Ohio

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

KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 6 years ago from Sunny Florida

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

2patricias profile image

2patricias 6 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

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

uh 4 years ago


Levertis Steele 3 years ago

Interesting and fun!

rekrings 2 years ago

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

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