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American Sign Language: "who"

The sign for "who" as several variations.

A good general variation is to place the tip of your thumb on your chin with your index finger extended. Bend your index finger twice. 

Notice, some people do this sign without touching the chin.  They hold an "X" handshape in front of their chin/mouth and wiggle the index finger up and down (quickly changing it from an fully bent X to a partially bent X a couple times).  Personally I prefer the "touch chin with thumb" variation, but I wouldn't consider it wrong if someone used the "non-contact" version. Also, you will see people who do the movement from the large knuckle instead of the small and middle knuckles -- that is okay too.


Memory aid: Imagine that the reason your finger is fluttering is because of the the air that flows from your mouth when you say "who." 



Here is a "legacy" (old) sign for WHO.    You should recognize it if you see it but it is not the most modern choice when signing.
This version isn't used by many people ny more. It is made by putting your right index finger in front of your lips. Move your finger in a circular motion as if tracing an "O" around your mouth:

WHO: Legacy version (archaic)


Optional (NOT required) reading:
In a message dated 1/18/2008 9:41:03 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, wsisneros@ writes:

I was checking signs on your website so I could refresh my memory and look up new signs. I wanted to look up "Who" because I have seen a different sign used, and I thought it was just a variant. I was unaware that the sign I was using for "Who" was an old version. It was the one I learned when I was a little girl and have been using ever since. No one has ever told me any different. Why is it not recommended to use it? I'm just curious.

Wendi Sisneros

Hi Wendi,
I recommend to my students that they use whatever sign is most prevalent in their region.
It has been my observation that the "straight index finger drawing a circle in front of the lips" version of "WHO" is being used less and less throughout the Deaf Community as a whole.  There isn't anything "wrong" with that sign, it is just becoming "outdated." Sort of like wearing clothing from an earlier time period.  Personally, I think of it as a "cool" old sign with a great history. I was teaching the newer sign the other day and one of my students (in his fifties) showed me the "circle" version of WHO.  There happened to be another Deaf person in the room and I asked her what she thought about that sign. She replied "That is an English sign."  To which I cocked an eyebrow to challenge her a bit.  She backed up a bit and admitted that she really didn't know if it was Signed English or just an older ASL sign but that the typical ASL sign was the one done by bending and unbending the index finger of the "L" hand with the thumb-tip touching the chin.  (She is about 25 years old.) 
-- Dr. Bill


In a message dated 2/27/2013 6:33:43 P.M. Pacific Standard Time, ssastronomy writes:

Dr. Bill,
While signing with one of my friends, which also knows some sign language, I noticed that she signed "who" by circling her mouth with her index finger. This is different from the way I learned from you with the thumb under the bottom lip and then wiggling the index finger. Which sign should I use?
- Sam

The version of WHO that circles the index finger around the mouth is a wonderful old (classic) sign for "who." It likely originated from how speech therapists used to circle their mouths to show Deaf students how to form their lips to facilitate pronouncing the word "who." I would bet if you go dig up an old copy of "The Joy of Signing" you will find that version in it.
These days that classic sign isn't used very much and I don't recommend it for new ASL students. It is nice that you know about it (in case you see someone still using it) but I recommend you instead use the more contemporary (current) version that touches the tip of the thumb to the chin and then bends and unbends the index finger (of an "L" hand) in front of the circled lips (as if saying who).
Dr. Bill

Note: When doing the sign for WHO as part of a question normally you will be "furrowing" your eyebrows when you do "WHO" sign. For example if you were talking with a friend and someone new walked into the room (at a party or similar situation) you might look at your friend, then glance at the newcomer, point at the newcomer and then look back at your friend and sign WHO while furrowing your eyebrows. (Since you are asking a "WH-type" question.)

However suppose you signed the statement:
HE NOT TELL ME WHO (as in "He didn't tell me who." -- Since it is a statement you would not furrow your eyebrows.


Note: WHO: The word "who" is more common in English than it is in ASL. In many situations in which the word "who" would be used in English the sign WHO would be unnecessary in ASL. In a sentence such as: "Those of you who might be wondering about …" would likely not involve the sign "WHO" and instead be signed something to the effect of: "IF YOU WONDER" or SOME OF YOU MAYBE WONDER…"

Note:  WHO:  The sign WHO has several versions. Pay close attention to the thumb position on WHO. Most versions of WHO touch the thumb to the chin (or during high speed signing just comes near the chin). In general (other than the legacy version of WHO that draws a circle around the mouth with the "1" hand / index finger) the sign for WHO is based on an L hand that either changes into a claw-L or into a bent-L-(from the large knuckle). In general the sign WHO is "not" a 1>X handshape. When beginners sign 1X1X for "WHO" it triggers a mental flag in some Deaf who don't like that version or consider it non-standard. It may be a stretch to decide that the 1X1X version is "wrong" -- but rather I'll suggest to you that there are more widespread / more recognized versions of WHO.

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