The middle finger in American Sign Language

This is a guest post by Cory O’Brien (@bettermyths), who is currently studying American Sign Language (ASL) at Columbia College Chicago. Cory has published two swear-laden books, George Washington is Cash Money and Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, and runs a Swear of the Month Club which you can subscribe to at: patreon.com/bettermyths.

The signers in the GIFs below are Ethan Cook and Peter Wujcik, Deaf ASL tutors at Columbia College Chicago.

 * * *

Whenever I tell someone that I’m studying American Sign Language, there is a nonzero chance that they’ll trot out the same tired joke: “Oh yeah? I know some sign language! [Flips me the bird.]” They laugh, and I laugh, and we promptly stop being friends. Really, though, these people have no idea just how right they are. It’s only that, when you’re talking about a language that has spent hundreds of years figuring out how to squeeze the absolute most meaning out of every part of a hand, merely throwing up a middle finger is the linguistic equivalent of showing up to a duel and then firing your pistol straight into the air.

In English, the middle finger is a gesture, as opposed to a word. A gesture is a physical (or verbal) action, like a nod or a head shake or a grunt, that you can’t use as a part of a longer sentence. You can’t say “[middle finger] you, Steve!” You can dress your middle finger up with all kinds of fancy pageantry – pretending to peel a banana, or scratch your eye, or crank a jack-in-the-box, for example – but the meaning is always more or less the same: Fuck you.

In ASL, the middle finger itself still isn’t a word, but it’s not exactly a gesture either. It’s a part of a word, a morpheme. Signs in ASL have five distinct elements that give them meaning: Location, Palm Orientation, Hand Shape, Movement, and Non-Manual Markers (essentially facial expressions). In ASL, the iconic meaning of the middle finger (an erect cock and balls) has been almost entirely eliminated, but the emotional connotations of the gesture have been retained. So, when incorporated into a sign, the middle finger provides the hand shape, but the meaning of that hand shape in context varies drastically depending on the other parameters used, allowing for an endless array of middle-finger-based swears and idioms. What follows is a mere sampling of that variety, and the techniques used to create it.

Directionality

Whereas in English we flip someone off with the back of our hand oriented towards the offending party, ASL has made the palm orientation a meaning component, adapting the gesture so that the middle finger points towards the object of the swear:

Peter Wujcik signs "Fuck me? Fuck you!" in ASL

This is part of a larger tendency in ASL to encode subject–object relationships with directional verbs. Another example is the idiom “Mutual Hatred”:

Ethan Cook signs "Mutual Hatred" in ASL

Here the two middle fingers stand in for two people who really fucking hate each other.

Exclamation

Just as we can emphasize spoken English by speaking more loudly, ASL signs can be made larger and more exaggerated. In the following sign (which roughly translates to “Fucking shit.”), notice how the signer draws his middle finger back before jamming it into his other hand, as if winding up for a punch.

Peter Wujcik signs "Fucking Shit!" or "God Dammit!" in ASL

Non-Manual Markers

Facial expressions carry a lot of weight in ASL. The same sign may mean precisely opposite things depending on the non-manual markers that accompany it.

Peter Wujcik signs "Fuckin' A" in ASL

Here, the meaning is obviously positive, something like “Fuck yeah,” or “Fuckin’ A.” If the exact same sign were produced with a head shake and a grimace rather than a head nod and pursed lips, the meaning would be more akin to “Aw fuck,” or “Fuck me.”

Hand Shape Play

The middle finger can also be substituted for the standard hand shape of an otherwise innocuous sign. The location, orientation, and movement of the original sign are retained, with the only difference being inclusion of the middle finger. This may be done for the sake of emphasis,

Peter Wujcik signs "Understand" in ASL
The non-profane form of “Understand.”

 

Peter Wujcik signs "Do you fucking get it?" in ASL
“Do you fucking get it?”

 

… derision,

Ethan Cook signs "Hearing" (as in, "not Deaf") in ASL
“Hearing” (as in, “not Deaf”)

 

Ethan Cook signs “Fucking Hearing people...” in ASL
“Fucking Hearing people…”

 

… abuse

Ethan Cook signs “Motherfucker” (produced in the same location as “Mother”) in ASL
“Motherfucker” – produced in the same location as “Mother.”

 

… or play

Peter Wujcik signs “Fuck-me pumps” or "High heels" in ASL
“Fuck-me pumps.”

 

Here’s an example of a sign that uses both hand shape play and directionality to paint a pretty clear picture.

Ethan Cook signs "Get the fuck out" in ASL

Non-Profane Uses

ASL is, by and large, a more direct language than English. One side effect of this is that swearing in ASL, though always a marker of a more casual register, is not necessarily profane. In other words, someone interpreting from ASL into English would not always be justified in translating a middle finger as some variation on the word “fuck.” Even when used directionally, as in this case:

Peter Wujcik signs "Fuck that" or "I don't want to do that" in ASL

the meaning might best be translated as: “I don’t want to do that,” rather than “Fuck that.” It’s not unheard of for children to use this sign in this way. It’s not appropriate for formal discourse, but it’s not exactly taboo either.

This is of course very context-dependent. Depending on the situation, this sign:

Ethan Cook signs "Fuck all y'all" or "Zero fucks given" or "I can't even" in ASL

might mean “Fuck all y’all,” or “Zero fucks given,” or simply “I can’t even.”

Cross-Linguistic Origins

The middle finger has a long history of use in America, but its true origins lie in ancient Rome. Many believe that the gesture first came to the United States by way of Italian immigrants. This nicely explains how the middle finger found its way into ASL as well. In fact, ASL has adopted a number of other vulgar gestures from Italian, including “up yours” and the chin flick. It is likely, however, that the bird as an offensive hand shape found its way into ASL a little while after its adoption into English, as evidenced by this now-archaic sign for the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago:

Peter Wujcik signs the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago

Like I said, this is just the tip of the cock-and-balls-shaped iceberg when it comes to swearing in ASL. If you’ve got any questions or opinions …

Peter Wujcik signs "Oh, you have some fucking opinions?" in ASL

… please leave them down below.

22 thoughts on “The middle finger in American Sign Language

  1. prior.. February 13, 2017 / 7:26 pm

    well done – learned so much here – thanks – the gifs are awesome too –

    Like

  2. The Album (Matt) February 13, 2017 / 8:22 pm

    This is glorious! Agree with prior.. The GIFs increased the laughter

    Like

  3. Cynt February 14, 2017 / 3:35 am

    I can’t say enough about how much I love this. I had no idea.

    Like

  4. annette February 14, 2017 / 5:09 am

    we use same sign for cn tower in Toronto

    Like

    • Karlene Kischer-Browne February 17, 2017 / 4:53 am

      I’ve seen the same sign used for the Washington Monument also. Great article, thank you!

      Like

  5. Ozias Sanchez February 14, 2017 / 8:02 am

    What’s that last one?

    Like

    • Debbie Drobney February 15, 2017 / 11:51 am

      Fucking-YOU fucking-HAVE fucking-COMMENT/MESSAGE

      Mr. Wujcik is fucking playing with the signs, YOU HAVE COMMENT…

      …fucking-HEARING…

      I love that you wrote this! My favorite thing in ASL is how much the lexicon can be added to simply by changing just one parameter (element) of the lexical item. Please give my regards to Emilio!!!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Janine February 15, 2017 / 6:41 pm

      Do u have a comment? That was the last one.

      Like

    • Kcatt14 February 18, 2017 / 5:19 am

      If you fuckers, fuckin have, fuckin comments……please leave them below.

      Like

  6. Vilinthril February 14, 2017 / 11:57 am

    Heh, I’ve been learning ÖGS for about a semester and only just now realised that ASL and ÖGS seem to share finger alphabets. ^^

    Like

    • Andrea Smith February 14, 2017 / 5:44 pm

      Most European sign languages use a similar fingerspelling. Unless there was some historical colonization by the British, the two-handed alphabet is rare. If the written form of the country’s spoken language uses the Latin alphabet, they’ll likely use a similar one-handed fingerspelled version. Interesting to note that ögs appears to be in a language family as Hungarian Sign Language, likely due to comingled education in Vienna.

      Like

      • David February 14, 2017 / 9:05 pm

        Hungarian Sign Language (sometimes called Majel) is related to ÖGS because it is a Francosign language related to old LSF from France. As such, most Francosign languages utilise one-handed fingerspelling because the origin language is the same. Most mainland European manual languages are Francosign; those that are not (like DGS in Germany) would have borrowed from LSF.

        The two-handed alphabet is not rare, per se, just less common than the one-handed LSF one. The two-handed one is employed by Auslan, MSL, BSL and other BANZSL languages, so similar to Francosign languages using the same fingerspelling method. Interesting examples of other fingerspelling systems are Majel’s one-handed system whose locations are facial and many E Asian fingerspelling systems. The reason that LSF’s is so, so common is the colonial nature of the language and its daughter language: ASL.

        Like

      • Andrea Smith February 15, 2017 / 12:12 am

        Well, I didn’t say that two handed alphabets were rare at all. I said they were rare outside of languages not derived from the colonization of Britain and, therefore, the expansion of British Sign Language. The languages you mentioned are all in the BANZSL family, which is in keeping with my point. There are some other signed languages with two-handed alphabets, but it is still more common for alphabets to be one-handed. My point in mentioning Hungarian as related to ÖGS was to note their similarities to each other. It is not correct to simply say they are alike because they both share roots in LSF. Swedish Sign Language and ASL are both LSF descendants, but are not really mutually intelligible. There are a ton of sign forms that are different for the same concepts or similar sign forms with completely different conceptual meanings, despite having a relatively recent shared language root history.

        Stating the definitive origins of any signed language is a murky set of waters at best. While the root of ASL and the subsequent spread of ASL variations to other countries is fairly well documented, the origins of many other signed languages is a good deal less clear. For example, while Hungarian and Austrian signed languages may have had a similar birthplace (the school in Vienna), newer research shows that Hungarian sign language actually forms a cluster with (among others) Czech and Polish sign language. Except Polish sign language is considered to be in a family with German sign language. You can see the problem. A great deal more research needs to be done on the ethnographies of signed languages before they can be classified into definitive family groups.

        On a less academic note, your comment about the “colonial nature” of LSF and ASL made me laugh. I would cheerfully remark that it takes a lot of chutzpah for someone from Britain to comment on others’ colonization of the globe. If my recollection of history is accurate, ASL exists because the teachers of BSL shuttered their doors and forced Gallaudet to look elsewhere for assistance in finding ways to teach Deaf people in America. He found the open arms of Laurent Clerc in France. Had the instructors at Braidwood been more forthcoming, the history of the Deaf community in the U.S. would have looked very different.

        Perhaps it is sour grapes that LSF/ASL have so many daughters while BSL has a much more limited number of offspring? 🙂

        Like

      • irishluigisdad February 16, 2017 / 10:42 pm

        Laughing here cos the colonialists in the international deaf world are the Americans with their missionaries setting up schools for deaf kids in Latin America, Africa and SE Asia, destroying native sign languages already in existence…

        Like

  7. Meredith February 14, 2017 / 1:12 pm

    Thanks so much for this – a great post to share with hearing friends! The “Willis Tower” sign is also often used for the Washington Monument here in DC.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Andrea Smith February 14, 2017 / 5:45 pm

    Very interesting and well written article. We used the “Willis Tower” sign in Seattle to represent the Space Needle, albeit with a circular motion that references the rotating restaurant level. However, in polite company, many would use the sign commonly used for the Eiffel Tower instead.

    Like

  9. David February 14, 2017 / 9:11 pm

    Amazing post! Just one note from a linguistic standpoint: The use of gesture in English can be very much morphemic, and with the acceptance (fucking finally) of manual languages in linguistics, people are starting to recognise that what we once thought were solely oral languages may systematically incorporate gesture into them as cheremes alongside phonemes. Examples include: Italian’s vast system of gesture that holds consistent meaning and takes on a guise similar to that of sign languages; English’s wink, middle finger, thumbs-up and similar which are can be used mid-sentence that creates sentences that are half-manual, half-oral. Think of “*middle finger*, bitch!” or “We’ll see to it that it happens, *wink*.”

    This is an evolving field of study and one which you may find interesting! As such, your point very much stands regarding “FUCKING-HEARING-PEOPLE” ; I just wanted to point out that gestures within oral languages actually hold more meaning than you let on, which is so cool!

    I want to end on this note, however: THIS POST IS AMAZING and really well put together!

    Like

  10. Tom February 15, 2017 / 2:36 pm

    DRAW-LINE/BOUNDARY with the middle finger too.

    Like

  11. Ethan Kincaid February 15, 2017 / 4:53 pm

    This is amazing! I learned so much. Now I want to learn sign-language even more than before. 🙂

    Like

    • Vilinthril February 15, 2017 / 5:18 pm

      Do it, it’s awesome. 🙂

      Like

  12. crystalsnowfire March 19, 2017 / 11:11 pm

    Can you make just a whole boatload of videos on how to sign like this? Just a youtube playlist for asl or something that’s just these kinda things? I would love that so much

    Like

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