Do sign languages have their own idioms, or do they just have direct translations of idioms from spoken languages?

Can you give some examples of idioms in sign language?

  • 1
    Sign languages are their own languages and have little in common with the spoken languages around them. So the definitely have their own idioms. Asking for examples makes this question too broad though.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 7:18
  • 1
    @curiousdannii Why does giving one or two examples make the question too broad? Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 9:43
  • @lemontree it makes it a list question - everyone can just suggest more and more examples with no way to judge them.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 11:46
  • 1
    @curiousdannii I wouldn't say they have little in common with the spoken languages around them. For example, it is common that signs for words involve mouth gestures that resemble gestures used when pronouncing these words in a spoken language. But in general, you're of course right, they are completely separate languages with their own syntax, vocabulary, idioms, etc.
    – michau
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 11:59
  • 1
    First, asking for an example of a claim doesn't make a question a "list" question: indeed, evidence should be given in a good answer. A couple of examples would be better to overcome a poor single example. Second, asserting that since signed languages are languages they definitely have their own idioms quite literally begs the question: prove that they have idioms, with an example. The real problem is that this is a really tough question, given the hundreds of signed languages, and limits of knowledge here about signed languages.
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 20:35

2 Answers 2


For a non-ASL example as requested: I don't know the Brazilian sign language (Libras) at all, but it was easy to find articles claiming that yes, they have idioms distinct from Brazilian Portuguese. One example is "expensive eye" = attentive onlooker vs. "cheap eye" = distracted person; another is "to squeeze your belly" = to laugh a lot. In other cases, idioms are direct calques from Brazilian Portuguese, like "wood face" = shameless, brazen.[1]

Albres et al. [2] have a short quantitative study where they classified 243 metaphors and idioms, and compared them between the two languages:

  • 121 items were shared in form and meaning;
  • 26 were non-literal forms with different meanings ("crown" is "old woman" in Brazilian Portuguese, "knowledgeable person" in Libras);
  • 14 are classified by them as something like translations with different morphemes (Portuguese "I've caught you in the flagra [= in a flagrant act; red-handed]" ~= Libras "saw-hour");
  • 82 metaphors and idioms were specific to Libras.

I'm dying to see the full list, but couldn't locate it online.


[1] Sandra P. F. Nascimento and Cristiane B. Nascimento. Introdução aos estudos linguísticos: Língua de Sinais Brasileira e Língua Portuguesa em foco. 2010.
[2] Neiva de Aquino ALBRES. Tenha “OLHO CARO”: a interpretação de expressões idiomáticas da Língua de Sinais Brasileira. 2006.


The following extract explains what an idiom is in Sign Languages and makes a few interesting examples:

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


  • Let's up the ante: any examples from a signed language that is not ASL?
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 20:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.