There are plenty of examples of signed languages borrowing or deriving words from spoken language. In ASL, the word DOG is a lexicalized fingerspelling of "dog", CHURCH is made with the "c" handshape corresponding to the first letter of "church", just to name a few.

Are there any examples of a spoken language borrowing words from a signed language? It seems less likely, since signed languages have lower prestige. Even so, there are many communities that have a large deaf population where such a phenomenon could happen.

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    Those examples are derived from the written language, though, not the spoken language. Glyph→sign is one thing, phone→sign is difficult for me to get my head around. Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 21:57
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    @StoneyB That's true, although there is some phone→sign effects with mouthing. For example, the sign FAT is often accompanied with mouth movement corresponding to the spoken word "fat". That said, an example of sign→glyph would also be interesting. Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 22:41
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    You could also look at it as phone→glyph→sign. I have been surprised so many times in linguistics that I'm prepared for the possibility of a surprise to exist here too. Voting up (-: Commented Nov 3, 2013 at 3:31
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    Well, one theory of the origin of Roman numerals is that I-X derived from hand signs, with the Is representing fingers, V representing a spread hand, and X representing two hands. That would certainly represent sign→glyph, albeit not from a signed language. Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 0:46
  • It's not clear to me how this could happen. Would the speaker not say anything but instead sign the word? Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 19:34

2 Answers 2


I don't know of any ASL signs that have made it into mainstream English, but there are a few things that are used typically by people who are part of the Deaf community when talking to each other. The English phrase "true biz" is used quite a bit both in writing and in spoken communicate. It comes from the gloss for a compound in ASL that means "actually." An exact translation of the compound might be REAL-WORK or TRUE-BUSINESS. Community members will also use the word "pah" to mean "finally" which comes from the non-manual marker that accompanies the manual sign for success.


I guess most signed languages are known to too few speaking people for such an occurrence to be likely. It is not so much a matter of prestige as a matter of population size and communication.

However, there are also very limited signed languages used by speaking people when they have to communicate silently or from a distance. It would have a better chance for "word borrowing" from the signed to the spoken language.

Thinking of that, I did think of one expression in English that seems to answer the question: "to give the finger" (sorry if that example may break some rules - this is linguistics here). There are probably some others examples. Maybe, "to wave someone goodbye" would qualify too.

The interesting point about "to give the finger" is that it can be used in contexts where it is not actually describing a physical movement, but can be interpreted directly as meaning strong refusal.

A similar analysis applies to "waving goodbye", meaning "aknowledging departure or loss". It can sometimes refer a description of the actual signed gesture, like "giving the finger". But it clearly only have the abstract acknowledgement meaning when applied to something other than a person. For example, in the sentence "if you trust bankers, you can wave your savings goodbye".

There are also counter-examples.

The expression "Back-scratching" refers to exchange of favor, not to actual physical scratching. However, it is irrelevant here because scratching someone's back is not considered a mean of communication.

The expression "to nod approval" does refer to the signed gesture of approval, but (afaik) is only used to actually describe the signed gesture. One would not say "the man nodded" to mean that he expressed agreement by any mean, but only to mean that he expressed agreement by actually nodding. So the verb "to nod" cannot be considered as borrowed from the signed language, but only as a reference to it.

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