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Idioms and ASL (2)
Also see:  Idioms 1 | 3

In a message dated 8/28/2007 7:20:11 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, an instructor writes:
Dear Dr. Bill:
Is there a difference between ASL phrases and ASL idioms??
I received a list that was titled "asl phrases" but they look like idioms to me. HELP???

Dear confused,

Yes, there is a difference between an "ASL phrase" and an "ASL Idiom."
Let's establish some definitions:

ASL phrase:
1.  A set of two or more ASL signs arranged in a sentence.
2.  A set of two or more ASL arranged as a meaningful unit preceded and followed by pauses.
3.  A brief utterance or remark that commonly occurs in the  ASL Deaf community.

ASL idiom:
1.  An expression in American Sign Language the meaning of which is not predictable from the usual meanings of its individual signs. For example "train gone." The meanings "you missed it" and "I will not go back and repeat my recent narrative," are not predictable from the individual constituents "train" and "gone (diminish into the distance)."
2.  An expression that is peculiar to the ASL Deaf Community.
3. A construction or expression of American Sign Language the parts of which correspond to elements in another language (typically English) but the total meaning of which is not matched in the second language.  For example, at the Indiana School for the Deaf I observed a third-grade girl turn to the boy behind her and sign (while voicing), "FINISH (on handed) BOTHER ME!"  In ASL the expression "FINISH BOTHER ME" means "knock it off" or "stop bothering me."  In English the word "finish" can mean "continue an action until you have completed your task." Thus to a "Hearing person" the expression "FINISH BOTHER ME" sounds very peculiar.  Another example is the expression "HEARING"-(culturally).
The phrase "Hearing people" is very common in the Deaf world, but it seems peculiar to people who are not members of the Deaf Community. 

Point 1:
All idioms are phrases, but not all phrases are idioms.

Point 2:
There are multiple definitions for the terms "phrase" and "idiom."
If you are using one definition and your colleague is using a different definition confusion and disagreement will result.

Point 3:
A phrase can be an idiom to one person and not an idiom to a different person.
When examined from outside of the Deaf world, many ASL Phrases might be considered "idioms."  Those same phrases when considered from inside the Deaf world would not be considered "idioms."  To a Deaf person the phrase "Hearing person" simply refers to someone who tends to "speak" and is not culturally Deaf.  The phrase "Hearing person" doesn’t seem peculiar to Deaf people.  Which means that to Deaf people the phrase "Hearing person" doesn't seem like an idiom. Deaf people consider the phrase "Hearing" to be a fitting description since we have inside information.  We know that the sign "HEARING"-(culturally) also means "speak" (or even "public").

Hearing people do not have this information.  They assume that the sign HEARING is equivalent to the spoken English word "hearing"  and thus the phrase "Hearing people" seems peculiar and is considered an "Idiom."  So whether something is an idiom or not can depend on your point of view.

Point 4:  A Deaf person developing an ASL curriculum might create a list of signs and label it as "idioms" because he doesn't know the equivalent phrase in English. A classic example is the "GULP"-(claw hand closes into "S" hand at base of neck) sign.  There is a very close English equivalent to this sign. The English word is "chagrinned." But since the corresponding word is unfamiliar to the Deaf person he labels the sign as an idiom. 

Point 5:  Sometimes people mislabel "multiple meaning" phrases as idioms.  This occurs when phrases have many possible interpretations.  Some curriculum developers call such phrases "idioms" rather than take the time to fully examine the meanings and matching interpretations of the phrase.. For example, the "SICK-YOU"-(one handed, jab motion) sign. This sign has several English equivalents, for example, "That's twisted!," "You pervert!," "You pest!," "I am so tired of that!" "It was funny the first time but now it is just annoying."

Point 5:  A Hearing person might make a list of phrases and call it a list of idioms because to him the phrases seem peculiar.  A deaf person might look at the same list and scratch his head wondering why these common phrases are being labeled as idioms.

(Dr. V of


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