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by Ernest Thompson Seton

 [See Also Indian Sign Language]

bulletFrom the Book of Woodcraft, by Ernest Thompson Seton. Doubleday, Page & Co.
bulletSee Sign Talk, by E. T. Seton. 700 ills. Published by v Doubleday, Page & Co.

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 and girls this question, "Do you use the Sign Language?" they nearly always say "No." 

Why should you talk the Sign Language There are many reasons:

bulletIn this code you can talk to any other Woodcrafter without an outsider knowing or understanding. 
bulletIt makes conversation easy in places when you must not speak aloud, as in school, during music, or by the bedside of the sick. 
bulletIt is a means of far-signaling much quicker than semaphore or other spelling codes, for this gives one or more words in one sign. 
bulletIt will enable you to talk when there is too much noise to be heard, as across the noisy streets. 
bulletIt makes it possible to talk to a deaf person. 
bulletIt is a wonderful developer of observation. 
bulletIt is a simple means of talking to an Indian or a Woodcrafter of another nationality whose language you do not understand. This indeed is its great merit. It is universal. It deals not with words but with ideas that are common to all mankind. It is therefore a kind of Esperanto already established.

So much for its advantages; what are its weaknesses? Let us frankly face them: 

bulletIt is useless in the dark;
bulletIt will not serve on the telephone;  
bulletIt can scarcely be written;   
bulletIn its pure form it will not give new proper names. 

To meet the last two we have expedients, as will be seen, but the first two are insurmountable difficulties. 

Remember, then, you are to learn the Sign Language because it is silent, far-reaching, and the one universal language. 

Since it deals fundamentally with ideas, we avoid words and letters, but for proper names it is very necessary to know the one-hand manual alphabet.     

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 (tapping one's chest) ;   

My, mine, yours, possession, etc. Hold out the closed fist, thumb up, and swing it down a little so thumb points forward.   

Yes (nod). When far off, make your right hand, with all fingers closed except index and thumb which are straight and touching at top, advance, bend toward the left side as though bowing, then returned and straight again.   

No (head shake). When too far for that to be seen, hold the closed right hand in front of the body, then sweep it, outward and downward, at the same time turn the palm up as though throwing something away.   

Eat (throw the flat hand several times past the mouth in a curve) ;   

Drink (hold the right hand as though holding a cup near the mouth and tip it up) ;   

Sleep (lay the right cheek on the right flat hand) ;   

Look (flat hand over eyes) ;   

Look there (point and look in same direction) ;   

Touch (reach out and touch with index) ;   

Listen (flat hand behind ear) ;   

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

Silence or hush (forefinger across lips) ;   

I will not listen (hold flat hands on ears) ;   

I will not look (cover eyes with hands) ;   

Taste (lay finger on lips) ;   

Smell (hold palm to nose);   

That tastes good (smack the lips) ;   

The food was good (pat the stomach) ;   

Bad taste (grimace and spitting out) ;   

Bad smell (hold the nose) ;   

Drinking (lift right hand to mouth as though it held a glass)

Smoking (make as though holding a pipe and drawing)   

Paint (use flat right as a brush to paint flat left) ;   

Shave (use finger or thumb on face as a razor);   

Wash (revolve hands on each other as in washing);   

Bend (with right hand bend left index);   

Break (with fists touching, make as though to bend a stick, then swing the fists apart);   

Write (make the action with index);   

Strike (strike down with fist);   

Fighting (make the fists menace each other);   

Set it afire (sign match, and then thrust it forward);   

Drive horses (work the two fists, side by side);   

Finished or done (hold out the flat left hand palm to the right, then with flat right hand and chop down past the ends of the left fingers);   

Search me (hold the coat flaps open in each hand);   

Swim (strike out with flat hands);   

Dive (flat hands together moved in a curve forward and down);   

Will you come swimming? (first and second fingers raised and spread, others closed);   

Good (nod and clap hands);   

Bad (shake head and grimace);   

"Very" or "very much," is made by striking the right fist down past the knuckles of the left without quite touching them, the left being held still;   

Hot (wet middle finger in mouth, reach it forward and jerk it back);   

Cold (fists near shoulder and shaken);   

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

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

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

I am thinking it over (forefinger on right brow and eyes raised);   

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

I wind him around my finger (make action with right thumb and index around left index);   

I have him under my thumb (press firmly down with top of right thumb);   

Sleepy (put a fist in each eye);   

Bellyache (with hands clasped across the belly);   

Sick (a grimace and a limp dropping of hands);   

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

Stop (flat hand held up; palm forward);   

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

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

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

Rub it out (quickly shake flat hand from side to side, palm forward);   

Up (forefinger pointed and moved upward);   

Down (ditto downward);   

Way or road (hold both flat hands nearly side by side, palms up, but right one nearer the breast, then alternately lift them forward and draw them back to indicate track or feet traveling);   

Forward (swing index forward and down in a curve);   

Backward (jerk left hand over shoulder);   

Across (hold left hand out flat, palm down, run right index across it);   

Over and above (hold out flat left, palm down, and above it hold-ditto right);   

Under (reverse or foregoing);   

It's in my pocket (slap pocket with flat hand);   

I send you a kiss (kiss finger tips and move hand in graceful sweep toward person);   

I pray (clasped hands held up);   

I am afraid, or surrender (hold up both flat hands palm forward);   

I forget (slowly shake head, and brush away something in air, near the nose);   

I am seeking (looking about and pointing finger in same directions);   

I have my doubts (slowly swing head from side to side);

You surprise me (flat hand on open mouth);   

Connivance (winking one eye);   

Puzzled (scratch the head);   

Crazy (tap forehead with index then describe a circle with it);   

Despair (pulling the hair);   

Weeping (with index finger at each eye, trace course of tears);   

Friendship (hands clasped);   

Threatening (fist shaken at person);   

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

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

Insolent defiance (thumb to nose tips, fingers fully spread);   

Indifference (a shoulder shrug);   

Ignorance (a shrug and headshake combined);   

Arrogant (indicate swelled head);   

Pompous (indicate a big chest);   

Incredulity (expose white of eye with finger, as though proving no green there);   

Shame on you (right forefinger drawn across left toward person several times);   

You make me ashamed (cover eyes and face with hands);   

Mockery (stick tongue at person);   

Disdain (snap fingers toward person);   

Applause (silently make as though clapping hands);   

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

He is cross (forefinger crossed level);   

Fool or ass (a thumb in each ear, flat hands up);   

Cutthroat (draw index across throat);   

I am no fool (tap one side of the nose);   

Joke (rub side of nose with index);   

Upon my honor (with forefingers make a cross over heart);   

I beg of you (flat hands tight together and upright);   

Do you think me simple? (forefinger laid on side of arose);   

Will you? or, is it so? (eyebrows raised and slight bow made);   

Bar up, fins, or I claim exemption (cross second finger of right hand on first finger and hold hand up);   

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

Bribe (hand held hollow up behind the back);   

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

I give you (the same, but push forward to finish);   

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

Give me my bill (same, then make motion of writing);   

Church (hands clasped, fingers in, but index fingers up and touching);   

Revolver (hold out right fist with index extended and thumb up);   

Gun or shooting (hold hands as in aiming a gun);   

Match (make the sign of striking, a match on the thigh);   

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

House Hold the flat hands together like a roof.   

Pistol (making barrel with left hand, stock and hammer with right, snap right index on thumb);   

bbrg161.gif (1991 bytes)
Query Sign

Query The sign for Question--that is, "I am asking you a question," "I want to know"--is much used and important. Hold up the right hand toward the person, palm forward, forgers open, slightly curved and spread. Wave the hand gently by wrist action from side to side. It is used before, and sometimes after, all questions. If you are very near, merely raise the eyebrows. 

The following are needed in asking questions: 

How Many? First the Question sign, then hold the left hand open, curved, palm up, fingers spread, then with right digit quickly tap each finger of left in succession, closing it back toward the left palm, beginning with the little finger.   

How Much? Same as How many ?   

What? What are you doing? What do you want? What is it? First give Question, then hold right hand palm down, fingers slightly bent and separated, and, pointing forward, throw it about a foot from right to left several times, describing an arc upward.   

When? If seeking a definite answer as to length of time, make signs for Question, How much, and then specify time by sign for hours, days, etc. When asking in general "When" for a date, hold the left index extended and vertical, others and thumb closed, make a circle round left index tip with tip of extended right index, others and thumb closed; and when the index reaches the starting point, stop it, and point at tip of left index (what point of shadow?).   

Where? (What direction?) Question, then with forefinger sweep the horizon in a succession of bounds, a slight pause at the bottom of each.   

Which? Question, then hold left hand in front of you with palm toward you, fingers to right and held apart; place the end of the right forefinger on that of left forefinger, and then draw it down across the other fingers.   

Thus "Will you eat?" would be a Question, you eat, but Have you eaten? would be, Question, you eat, finished.   

Why? Make the sign for Question, but do it very slowly.    

Who? Question, and then describe with the right forefinger a small circle six inches in front of the mouth.  

 bbrg162.gif (9531 bytes)
One-Hand Manual Alphabet        

It takes a good-sized dictionary to give all the signs in use, and a dictionary you must have, if you would become an expert. 

A very pretty Woodcraft sign is given as follows: First, give the Question sign, then make an incomplete ring of your right forefinger and thumb, raise them in a sweep until above your head, then bring the ring straight down to your heart. This is the Indian way of asking, "Is the sun shining in your heart?" that is, "Are you happy?"--your answer will be made by the right hand and arm standing up straight, then bowing toward the left, followed by a sharp stroke of the right fist knuckles past those of the left fist without their touching, which means: "Yes, the sun shines in my heart heap strong."

See Also: 

William Tomkins' Indian Sign Language

Dan Beard's Indian Sign Language

Ernest Thompson Seton's
Sign Talk of the Cheyenne 
Indians and Other Cultures


The Birch Bark Roll






Additional Information:

Peer- Level Topic Links:
Breech Clouts, Breech Cloths ] Buffalo Skull ] Buttons ] Canoe Decoration ] Drums and Shields ] Indian Graphic Arts ] Indian Names for Months ] Indian Moccasins ] Navajo Loom ] Painted Paddles ] Peace Pipes ] Picture-Writing ] [ Sign Language ] Painting the Tepee ] Pottery ] Teepee Plans 10' ] Tweezers ] War Bonnets ] Willow Bed ]

Parent- Level Topic Links:
Native Skills ] Totem Poles ] Indian Sign Language ] Indian Ceremonies ] Indian Dance ] Indian Songs ] Birch Bark Dances ] Birch Bark Songs ] Birch Bark Plays ] Indian Games for Boys ]

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Last modified: October 15, 2016.