ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library

American Sign Language: "Loan Signs"
Also see: "Lexicalized fingerspelling"

"Loan signs" are signs that have been borrowed from other sign languages.

For example, in American Sign Language it used to be common to twist an index finger next to the eye to indicate "China." Now, many people draw an "upside down "L" in the air starting from a point in front of their left chest area, moving to their right chest area, and then down. This newer version of the sign was "borrowed" from Chinese Sign Language. The old sign referred to the "eyes" of Chinese people and was considered by many to be inappropriate. The newer sign can be thought of as referring to their clothing (the buttons on certain clothing or uniform styles).

Typical loan signs are signs that have been borrowed from other countries. Quite a few loan signs consist of the signs that deaf people in other countries use to refer to their country. For example, the loan sign for Japan uses the index and thumb of each hand to trace a banana shape in the air. This sign looks somewhat like the shape of Japan. The old sign did a "J" on the temple near the eyes in reference to the shape of a Japanese person's eyes. The new sign shows more respect for Japanese Deaf Culture.

In a message dated 7/13/2005 2:28:03 PM Pacific Daylight Time, writes:

There's a new phenomena applied in my sign language, Kuwaiti sign language, and I'm wondering whether it is applied in ASL as well: Kuwaiti deaf used to sign the States as shooting guns (similar to FAST sign but with L-hnadshapes) referring to cowboys. As they discovered that deaf Americans are using a different one, kuwaitis had borrowed the American sign. Now we have changed our previous country signs, and replaced it with the signs the people of a given country practice.

My questions:
1. Is the same kind of borrowing applied in ASL?!
2. if so, do you have a tendency to borrow signs for presidents or amirs as well???

Thank you...

Yes, ASL users engage in lexical borrowing from other countries--particularly for the names of those countries. For example, we used to sign "Japan" by using a "J" near our eyes in reference to the shape of the eyes of Japanese people. We now sign Japan by showing the shape of the country of Japan since that is the way people who are Deaf in Japan do it.
We used to sign China by twisting an index finger at the corner of the eye. (Again, referring to the shape of the eyes.) Now we tend to sign China by pointing to our upper left chest, moving to the upper right chest area, and then down. Sort of like drawing a reverse (to the onlooker) "7" an inch or two in front of our chest.
If I saw a sign used by the people of a country to refer to the amir of that country I would certainly use it in preference to whatever sign is currently being used in ASL.

In a message dated 1/10/2007 9:24:05 AM Pacific Standard Time, sloveall_60@ writes:
Could you please distinguish for me the difference between a loan sign and a lexicalized fingerspelled word?
Sharon Loveall, M.A.

In the "old days" we used to call fingerspelling that looked like a sign "loan signs."
Then later most of us stopped calling such fingerspelling "loan" signs and started calling such fingerspelling "lexicalized fingerspelling." Which means, "spelling that has taken on the characteristic of a lexeme." Lexeme is a fancy word that basically means "word" (or in our case, "a sign.") Thus lexicalize fingerspelling is a fingerspelled concept that looks and functions more like a sign than like fingerspelling.
Then we started calling signs that we borrowed from other signed languages, "loan signs."
So, think of signs borrowed from fingerspelling as being "lexicalized signs."
Think of signs borrowed from other sign languages as being "loan signs."
Dr V

Want to help support ASL University?  It's easy DONATE (Thanks!)
(You don't need a PayPal account. Just look for the credit card logos and click continue.)

Another way to help is to buy Dr. Bill's "Superdisk."

Dr. Bill's new iPhone "Fingerspelling Practice" app is now available!   CHECK IT OUT >

Want even more ASL resources?  Visit the "ASL Training Center!"  (Subscription Extension of ASLU)   CHECK IT OUT >

Bandwidth slow?  Check out "" (a free mirror of less traffic, fast access)   VISIT >