The sign for "old"
starts as a "C" hand and turns into an "S" hand as you pull it down from
Here's an example of OLD being signed by my friend
Note the angle of her hand as she completes the sign. Also note how the fact
that she has "somewhat" long fingernails also influences the sign. It is
still a "C" / "S" but her fingers are more loose.
You can modify the sign OLD to mean "very" old by using a larger movement
with a side to side motion and more facial expression.
If someone uses a "Wh" facial
expression (eyebrows furrowed a bit) and signs "YOU OLD ?" They are not
saying, "You are old." Rather they are asking "How old are you?"
Video: To play, click the small
play button in the lower left hand corner of the video:
OPTIONAL READING (Not required for class.)
A student asked me how to do age-related signs. For example how to
discuss people's ages.
* There is a lot of variety. It is important to note that if you observe
several different Deaf people using age-related signs you are likely to see
several different versions of those signs.
* We have to consider that often two or more people contribute separate
parts of the meaningful whole.
Two people discussing "age" often work together to construct "meaning."
(Dual Party Construction of Meaning). For example: Bob might ask Mary, "YOUR
SON, how-OLD?" To which Mary might reply, "THREE." The whole age concept is
"three years old." Bob contributed the sign "OLD" and Mary contributed the
sign "THREE." So you have a single “concept” being created by two people.
There is no need for Mary to repeat the sign “OLD” in her reply since Bob
already introduced that concept.
* Mary is likely to simply hold up a “3” hand (palm back). Note, while
signing “YOUR SON” Bob’s eyebrows were up and his head tilted a bit forward.
While signing “OLD” Bob’s eyebrows were somewhat furrowed and his head
tilted back ever so slightly so as to express the concept “old” as a
question, “how old?” Bob didn’t need a separate sign for “HOW” since it was
expressed “non-manually” (without using his hands) via his eyebrows and head
tilt while doing the sign OLD.
* Suppose Mary initiated the conversation and the concept of “age” hadn’t
been introduced into that conversation yet, it is likely that Mary would
have signed, “MY SON, old-3.” The “old-3” would have been expressed by
touching the index finger of a “3” handshape to the chin and then moving the
hand downward and outward. However, I have observed many Deaf people also
signing this as “OLD 3” by using two separate signs: OLD and THREE.
* Classroom signing and real world signing are often very different. It is
fine for a teacher to tell her students that the “right way” to sign “three
years old” is to use the “old-3” sign which uses a single handshape and
numerical incorporation. But we do need to be careful to recognize that if
we were to go out into the real world and secretly videotape 100 Deaf people
doing that sign, we would very likely see a number of them using two
separate signs to express “OLD 3.” What is “right” and wrong in a language
is nothing more than what the crowd is and isn’t doing. If the crowd does it
long enough, the old grammarians die and new grammar texts grudgingly begin
to include the newer forms.
* Certain variations of age-signs could be considered the product of
assimilation rather than being examples of intentional numerical
incorporation. By this I mean, since the sign “OLD” and the following number
sign are done so close together we may in fact simply be seeing one sign
assimilate characteristics of the other sign. This would be similar to the
way you will sometimes see the sign “I” done with a “bent hand” when signing
the phrase “I KNOW.” The sign “I” in that case assimilates the handshape of
the following sign, “KNOW.” This process could be applied to age-signs which
is to say a case could be made that the sign OLD is simply assimilating the
handshape of the sign THREE because the two signs are so close in proximity.
* Not all numbers are created equally. Some numbers are more complex than
others. For example, certain variations of numbers (e.g. 23, 25, 35), have
internal movement. The more complex a number, the less likely we are to add
even more complexity by using numerical incorporation.
* Some numbers have handshapes that are more conducive to touching the chin
than others. It is slightly more difficult to touch your chin with the
middle finger of the number “9” than it is to touch your chin with the index
finger of the number “8.” Those numbers which use the extended index finger
are more likely to be touched to the chin that other numbers which do not
extend the index finger.
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