Sign Language

DO YOU know the Sign Language? If not, do you realize that the Sign Language is an established mode of communication in all parts of the world without regard to native speech?

Do you know that it is so refined and complete that sermons and lectures are given in it every day, to those who cannot hear?

Do you know that it is as old as the hills and is largely used in all public schools? And yet when I ask boys this question, "Do you use the Sign Language?" they nearly always say "No".

The first question of most persons is "What is it?" It is a simple method of asking questions and giving answers, that is talking, by means of the hands. It is used by all the Plains Indians, and by thousands of white people to-day, in cities, as well as in the western country, and to an extent that surprises all when first they come to think of it.

Not long ago I asked a boy whether the policemen on the crowded streets used Sign Language. He said, "No!" at least he did not know if they did.

I replied: "When the officer on Fifth Avenue wishes to stop all vehicles, what does he do?"

"He raises his hand, flat with palm forward," was the reply.

"Yes, and when he means 'come on,' what does he do?" "He beckons this way".

"And how does he say 'go left, go right, go back, come, hurry up, you get out?' " Each of these signs I found was well known to the boy.

The girls are equally adept and equally unconscious of it.

One very shy little miss - so shy that she dared not speak - furnished a good illustration of this:

"Do you use the Sign Language in your school?" I asked.

She shook her head.

"Do you learn any language but English?" She nodded.

"What is the use of learning any other than English?"

She raised her right shoulder in the faintest possible shrug.

"Now," was my reply, "don't you see you have already given me three signs of the Sign Language, which you said you did not use?"

After collecting popular signs for several years I found that I had about one hundred and fifty that are in established use in the schools of New York City.

Here are some of the better known. Each boy will probably find that he has known and used them all his schooldays:


You (pointing at the person);


Me (pointing at one's self);


Yes (nod);


No (head shake);


Go (move hand forward, palm first);


Come (draw hand toward one's self, palm in);


Hurry (same, but the hand quickly and energetically moved several times);

Come For A Moment

Come For A Moment (hand held out back down, fingers closed except first, which is hooked and straightened quickly several times);


Stop (one hand raised, flat; palm forward);

Gently Or Go Easy

Gently Or Go Easy (like "stop," but hand gently waved from side to side);


Good-Bye (hand high, flat, palm down, fingers wagged all together);


Up (forefinger pointed and moved upward);


Down (ditto downward);

Silence Or Hush

Silence Or Hush (forefinger across lips);


Listen (flat hand behind ear);


Whisper (silently move lips, holding flat hand at one side of mouth);


Friendship (hands clasped);


Threatening (fist shaken at person);


Warning (forefinger gently shaken at a slight angle toward person);

He Is Cross

He Is Cross (forefinger crossed level);

Shame On You

Shame On You (right forefinger drawn across left toward person several times);


Scorn (turning away and throwing an imaginary handful of sand toward person);

Insolent Defiance

Insolent Defiance (thumb to nose tip, fingers fully spread);


Surrender (both hands raised high and flat to show no weapons);


Crazy (with forefinger make a little circle on forehead then point to person).

Look There

Look There (pointing).


Applause (silently make as though clapping hands).


Victory (one hand high above head as though waving hat);


Indifference (a shoulder shrug);


Ignorance (a shrug and headshake combined);


Pay (hand held out half open, forefinger and thumb ribbed together);


Poverty (both hands turned flat forward near trouser pockets);


Bribe (hand held hollow up behind the back);


Knife (first and second fingers of right hand used as to whittle first finger of left);

I Am Thinking It Over

I Am Thinking It over (forefinger on right brow and eyes raised);

I Forgot

I Forgot (touch forehead with all right finger tips, then draw flat hand past eyes once and shake head);

I Send You A Kiss

I Send You A Kiss (kiss finger tips and move hand in graceful sweep toward person);

The Meal Was Good

The Meal Was Good (pat stomach);

I Beg Of You

I Beg Of You (flat hands tight together and upright);

Upon My Honor

Upon My Honor (with forefingers make a cross over heart);

Bar Up, Fins, Or I Claim Exemption

Bar Up, Fins, Or I Claim Exemption (cross second finger of right hand on first finger and hold hand up);

Give Me

Give Me (hold out open flat hand pulling it back a little to finish);

I Give You

I Give You (the same, but push forward to finish);

Give Me My Bill

Give Me My Bill (same, then make motion of writing);

Get Up

Get Up (raise flat hand sharply, palm upward);

Sit Down

Sit Down (drop flat hand sharply, palm down);

Rub It Out

Rub It Out (quickly shake flat hand from side to side, palm forward);

Thank You

Thank You ( a slight bow, smile and hand-salute, made by drawing flat hand a few inches forward and downward palm up);

Do You Think Me Simple?

Do You Think Me Simple? (forefinger laid on side of nose)

Will You? Or, Is It So?

Will You? Or, Is It So? (eyebrows raised and slight bow made);

Will You Come Swimming?

Will You Come Swimming? (first and second fingers raised and spread, others closed);

Also of course, the points of the compass, and the numerals up to twenty or thirty.

My attention was first directed to the Sign Language in 1882, when I went to live in western Manitoba. There I found it used among the Crees and Sioux, the latter especially being expert sign-talkers. Later, I found it a daily necessity for travel among the natives of New Mexico and Montana.

One of the best sign talkers I ever met was the Crow Indian, white Swan, who had been one of Custer's Scouts. He was badly wounded by the Sioux, clubbed on the head, and left for dead. He recovered and escaped; but ever after was deaf and dumb. However sign talk was familiar to all his people and he was at little disadvantage in daytime. From him I received many lessons in Sign Language and thus in 1897 began to study it seriously.

Now I wish to teach it to the Scouts. If each of them would learn to use with precision the one hundred and fifty schoolboy signs and then add twice as many more, they would become fairly good sign-talkers. These additional signs they can find in the "Dictionary of the Sign Language."*