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Phrases – Sign Language

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President of the United States; Secretary of the Interior

Close the right hand, leaving the thumb and index fully extended and separated; place the index over the forehead so that the thumb points to the right, palm toward the face; then draw the index across the forehead toward the right; then elevate the extended index, pointing upward before the shoulder or neck; pass it upward as high as the top of the head; make a short turn toward the front and pass it pointing downward toward the ground, to a point farther to the front and a little lower than at the beginning. (Absaroka I; Dakota VI, VII; Shoshoni and Banak I; Ute I; Apache I.) “White man and chief.”

Make the sign for white man (American), by passing the palmar surface of the extended index and thumb of the right hand across the forehead from left to right, then that for chief, and conclude by making that for parent by collecting the fingers and thumb of the right hand nearly to a point and drawing them forward from the left breast. (Kaiowa I; Comanche III; Apache II; Wichita II.) “White man; chief; father.”

Secretary of the Interior

Draw the palmar side of the index across the forehead from left to right, resting the thumb upon the right temple, then make the sign for chief—the white chief, “Secretary;” then make the sign for great lodge, council house, by making the sign for lodge, then placing both hands somewhat bent, palms facing, about ten inches apart, and passing them upward from the waist as high as the face. (Arikara I.)

Where is Your Mother?

After placing the index into the mouth—mother, point the index at the individual addressed—your, then separate and extend the index and second fingers of the right hand; hold them, pointing forward, about twelve or fifteen inches before the face, and move them from side to side, eyes following the same direction—I see, then throw the flat right hand in a short curve outward to the right until the back points toward the ground—not, and look inquiringly at the individual addressed. (Ute I.) “Mother your I see not; where is she?”

Are You Brave?

Point to the person and make sign for brave, at same time looking with an inquiring expression. (Absaroka I; Shoshoni and Banak I.)

Bison, I Have Shot a

Move the open left hand, palm to the front, toward the left and away from the body slowly (motion of the buffalo when chased). Move right hand on wrist as axis, rapidly (man on pony chasing buffalo); then extend left hand to the left, draw right arm as if drawing a bow, snap the forefinger and middle finger of left hand, and thrust the right forefinger over the left hand. (Omaha I.)

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Give Me Something to Eat

Bring the thumb, index and second fingers to a point as if grasping a small object, the remaining fingers naturally extended, then place the hand just above the mouth and a few inches in front of it, and make repeated thrusts quickly toward the mouth several times; then place the naturally extended right hand nearly at arm’s length before the body, palm up, fingers pointing toward the front and left, and make a short circular motion with the hand, as in Fig. 301, bringing the outer edge toward the body as far as the wrist will permit, throwing the hand forward again at a higher elevation. The motion being at the wrist only. (Absaroka I; Dakota VII, VIII; Comanche III.)

I Will See You Here After Next Year.

Raise the right hand above the head (J 2), palm to the front, all the fingers closed except the index, hand slanting a little to backward, then move forward and downward toward the person addressed, describing a curve. (Omaha I.)

You Gave Us Many Clothes, But We Don’t Want Them.

Lean forward, and, holding the hands concavo-convex, draw them up over the limbs severally, then cross on the chest as wrapping a blanket. The arms are then extended before the body, with the hands in type-position (W), to a height indicating a large pile. The right hand then sweeps outward, showing a negative state of mind. The index of right hand finally touches the chest of the second party and approaches the body, in position (I), horizontal. (Oto and Missouri I.) “Something to put on that I don’t want from you.”

Question, See also this title in Extracts from Dictionary.

Hold the extended and flattened right hand, palm forward, at the height of the shoulder or face, and about fifteen inches from it, shaking the hand from side to side (at the wrist) as the arm is slightly raised, resembling the outline of an interrogation mark (?) made from below upward. (Absaroka I; Dakota V, VI, VII; Hidatsa I; Kaiowa I; Arikara I; Comanche II, III; Pai-Ute I; Shoshoni and Banak I; Ute I; Apache I, II; Wichita II.)

——What? What is it?

First attract the person’s notice by the sign for attention, viz: The right hand (T) carried directly out in front of the body, with arm fully extended and there moved sidewise with rapid motions; and then the right hand, fingers extended, pointing forward or outward, fingers joined, horizontal, is carried outward, obliquely in front of the right breast, and there turned partially over and under several times. (Dakota I.)

——What are you doing? What do you want?

Throw the right hand about a foot from right to left several times, describing an arc with its convexity upward, palm inward, fingers slightly bent and separated, and pointing forward. (Dakota IV.)


With its index extended and pointing forward, back upward, rotate the right hand several times to the right and left, describing an arc with the index. (Dakota IV.)

——What are you? i.e., What tribe do you belong to?

Shake the upright open right hand four to eight inches from side to side a few times, from twelve to eighteen inches in front of the chin, the palm forward, fingers relaxed and a little separated. (Dakota IV.)

It must be remarked that in the three preceding signs there is no essential difference, either between themselves or between them and the general sign for Question above given, which can be applied to the several special questions above mentioned. A similar remark may be made regarding several signs given below, which are printed in deference to collaborators.

Pass the right hand from left to right across the face. (Kutine I.)

——What do you want?

The arm is drawn to front of chest and the hand in position (N 1), modified by palms being downward and hand horizontal. From the chest center the hand is then passed spirally forward toward the one addressed; the hand’s palm begins the spiral motion with a downward and ends in an upward aspect. (Oto I.) “To unwind or open.”

——Whence come you?

First the sign for you, viz: The hand open, held upward obliquely, and pointing forward; then the hand, extended open and drawn to the breast, and lastly the sign for bringing, as follows: The hand half shut, with the thumb pressing against the forefinger, being first moderately extended either to the right or left, is brought with a moderate jerk to the opposite side, as if something was pulled along by the hand. (Dunbar.)

——Who are you? or what is your name?

The right or left hand approximates close to center of the body; the arm is flexed and hand in position (D), or a little more closed. From inception of sign near center of body the hand slowly describes the arc of a quadrant, and fingers unfold as the hand recedes. We think the proper intention is for the inception of sign to be located at the heart, but it is seldom truly, anatomically thus located. (Oto I.) “To unfold one’s self or make known.”

——Are you through?

With arms hanging at the side and forearms horizontal, place the fists near each other in front of body: then with a quick motion separate them as though breaking something asunder. (Sahaptin I.)

——Do you know?

Shake the right hand in front of the face, a little to the right, the whole arm elevated so as to throw the hand even with the face, and the forearm standing almost perpendicular. Principal motion with hand, slight motion of forearm, palm out. (Sahaptin I.)

——How far is it?

Sign for Do you know? followed with a precise movement throwing right hand (palm toward face) to a position as far from body as convenient, signifying far; then with the same quick, precise motion, bring the hand to a position near the face—near. (Sahaptin I.)

—How will you go— horseback or in wagon?

First make the sign for Do you know? then throw right hand forward—go or going; then throw fore and middle fingers of right astride the forefinger of the left hand, signifying, will you ride?; then swing the forefingers of each hand around each other, sign of wheel running, signifying, or will you go in wagon? (Sahaptin I.)

——How many?

After making the sign for question, touch the tips of as many of the extended and separated fingers of the left hand held in front of the body upright, with back outward, with the right index as may be necessary. (Dakota I.) “Count them off to me—how many?”

Place the left hand carelessly before the breast, fingers extended and slightly separated, back to the front, then count off a few with the extended index, by laying down the fingers of the left, beginning at the little finger, as in Fig. 302. In asking the question, the sign for question must precede the sign for many, the latter being also accompanied by a look of interrogation. (Shoshoni and Banak I.)

Fig. 302

Fig. 302

——Has he?

Deaf-mute natural sign:

Move to and fro the finger several times toward the person spoken of (Larson.)

——Have you?

Deaf-mute natural sign:

Move the finger to and fro several times toward the person to whom the one is speaking. (Larson.)

——Are you?

Deaf-mute natural signs:

Point to the person spoken to and slightly nod the head, with an inquiring look. (Ballard.)

Point with the forefinger, as if to point toward the second person, at the same time nod the head as if to say “yes.” (Ziegler.)

The following was obtained at Washington during the winter of 1880-’81 from Ta-tan-ka Wa-kan (Medicine Bull), a Brulé Dakota chief; by Dr. W.J. Hoffman.

I Am Going Home in Two Days.

(1) Place the flat hands in front of and as high as the elbows, palms down, pass each hand across to the opposite side of the body, the right above the left crossing near the wrist at the termination of the gesture (night), repeat in quick succession—nights, (2) elevate the extended index and second finger of the right hand, backs to the front—two, (3) place the tips of the extended and joined fingers of the right hand against the breast—I, (4) after touching the breast as in the preceding, pass the extended index from the breast, pointing downward, forward nearly to arm’s length, and terminating by holding the hand but continuing the motion of the index until it points forward and upward—am going to, (5) throw the clinched right fist about six inches toward the earth at arm’s length after the completion of the preceding gesture—my home.

Han-he’-pi non’-pa mi’-ye ti-ya’-ta wa-gle’-kta.
(1) (2) (3) (5) (4)
nights two I my home am going to.

It will be noticed that the gesture No. 4, “am going to,” was made before the gesture No. 5, “my home,” although the Dakota words pronounced were in the reverse order, showing a difference in the syntax of the gestures and of the oral speech in this instance. The other gestures, 1, 2, and 3, had been made deliberately, the Dakota word translating each being in obvious connection with the several gestures, but the two final words were pronounced rapidly together as if they could not in the mind of the gesturer be applied separately to the reversed order of the signs for them.


The same authority obtained the above sentence in Ponka and Pani, together with the following signs for it, from individuals of those tribes. Those signs agreed between each other, but differed from the Dakota, as will be observed, in the signs to my house, as signifying to my home.

(1) Touch the breast with the tips of the extended fingers—I. This precedes the signs for Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5, which correspond to Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the Dakota; then follows: (6) place the tips of the extended fingers of the flat hands together, leaving the wrists about six inches apart—lodge, (7) and conclude by placing the clinched fists nearly at arm’s length before the body, the right several inches above the left, then throw them toward the ground—about six or eight inches—the fists retaining their relative positions—my, mine.


The following is the Ponka sentence as given by the gesturer in connection with the several gestures as made:
—— Nan’-ba jan ʞi a-g¢e’ ta min̄’-ke ʇi wi’-wi-a te’-ʇa.
(1) (3) (2) (4) (5) (6) (7)
The following is the full sentence as spoken by Ponkas without regard to gesture, and its literal translation:
Nan’-ba jan ʞĭ a-g¢e’ ta’ min¯’-ke ʇi wi’-wi-ʇa tè’-?a. —
Two night,
I go
will I who lodge my own the
The Pani gestures were given with the accompanying words, viz:







The orthography in the above sentences, as in others where the original text is given (excepting the Dakota and Ojibwa), is that adopted by Maj. J.W. Powell in the second edition of the Introduction to the Study of Indian Languages. Washington, 1880. The characters more particularly requiring explanation are the following, viz:

¢, as th in then, though.

, as ng in sing, singer; Sp. luengo.

ʞ, an intermediate sound between k and g in gig.

kh, as the German ch, in nacht.

ʇ, an intermediate sound between t and d.

Nasalized vowels are written with a superior n, thus: an, en.

The following phrases were obtained by the same authority from Antonito, son of Antonio Azul, chief of the Pimas in Arizona.

I Am Hungry, Give Me Something to Eat.

(1) Touch the breast with the tips of the extended fingers of the right hand—I, (2) place the outer edge of the flat and extended right hand against the pit of the stomach, palm upward, then make a sawing motion from side to side with the hand—hunger, (3) place the right hand before the face, back upward, and fingers pointing toward the mouth, then thrust the fingers rapidly to and from the mouth several times-eat.


Pit’ ku-rĕt’ ka’-ha wi ta-tukh’-ta a-ka’-ru ru-ret’-i-ru.
(1) (3) (2) (4) (5) (6) (7)
I (In) two nights I am going house to my.




The last sign is so intimately connected with that for hunger, that no translation can be made.Give Me A Drink of Water.(1) Place the tips of the index and thumb together, the remaining fingers curved, forming a cup, then pass it from a point about six inches before the chin, in a curve upward, backward and downward past the mouth—water, (2) then place the flat right hand at the height of the elbow in front of or slightly to the right of the body, palm up, and in passing it slowly from left to right, give the hand a lateral motion at the wrist—give me.


An-an’-t pi’-hu-ki’um ——
(1) (2) (3)
I (have) hunger eat.
Shu’-wu-to do’-i’.
(1) (2)
water give me.




The following was also obtained by Dr. W.J. Hoffman from Ta-tan-ka Wa-kan, before referred to, at the time of his visit to Washington.

I Am Going Home

(1) Touch the breast with the extended index—I, (2) then pass it in a downward curve, outward and upward toward the right nearly to arm’s length, as high as the shoulder—am going (to), (3) and when at that point suddenly clinch the hand and throw it edgewise a short distance toward the ground—my country, my home.


Ma-ko’-ce mi-ta’-wa kin e-kta’ wa-gle’ kta.
(3) (2) (1)
Country my own the to I go home will.
Fig. 303

Fig. 303



MLA Source Citation:

Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared with that Among Other Peoples and Deaf-Mutes. 1881 Web. 29 August 2016.
- Last updated on Jan 5th, 2014

This page is part of a larger collection. Access the full collection at Sign Language Among North American Indians.

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