Synonyms…Why do they matter in American Sign Language (ASL)?

One misconception about American Sign Language is the belief that there is a sign for every word. However, unlike the English Language, ASL is based on communication through concepts. One example is the word “car”. There is not a specific sign for “car,” rather, the interpretation of it could include several synonyms or related words, such as “vehicle”, “transportation”, “automobile”, “auto”. Similarly, the sign for “father” could encompass “dad”, “papa”, “pa” and so forth.  Using a video dictionary or one customized for American Sign Language will help you gain a better grasp of this. Yet, do not let yourself get frustrated if you do not find an exact match for the word you wish to communicate. Instead, consider various synonyms that might suffice. This would be a great way to expand your own vocabulary while learning another language! Want to expand it even more? If we are missing something, please feel free to make a word request from our online dictionary.

The Use of Synonyms in American Sign Language (ASL)

Synonyms in American Sign Language are powerful to know when learning this vast language. For example, if you were to sign “car”, what else could that sign represent? It could represent the words: Vehicle, automobile, transportation, and auto. You can probably think of an additional word or two that also means “car”.

Many times when people are learning American Sign Language (ASL), they have a tendency to focus only on the gloss (basic) word, and not the other words associated with that particular sign. For example, think of the sign for “father”. What additional words can you think of that would match this sign? I can think of “papa”, “dad”, and “pa”. Do you know others? Remember, ASL is based on concepts, and not on the English language.

I want to challenge you to think of as many synonyms for some of the words you have already learned how to sign. Again, an example could be: Anniversary. Some synonyms would be: Holiday, jubilee, festival, fiesta, celebration, and perhaps others that you might think of. All of them use the same sign to convey the concept of the word “anniversary”.

In the video examples below, can you think of synonyms that are associated with these signs?

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