ILY (I Love You) in Sign Language

The handshape ILY is all-known in ASL/Deaf culture. The three initials of I, L, and Y handshapes are blended into the standalone ILY handshape with the thumb, index finger and pinky extended.

ILY handshape in ASL
Illustration of the ILY handshape.

It's commonly used in ASL-speaking families and love relationships to say good-bye ILY, good-night ILY, "I'm sorry. ILY", and so on. It's also sometimes used as "good-bye-ILY" among some close friends in Deaf community.

The ILY handshape comes in different movements for different contexts and meanings. Waving ILY is used when saying good-bye with care or love or simply saying "ILY". Or, it can be thrust outward, straight forward as in "love ya!" You're so hilarous, love ya! Or, it can be creatively playful, cute, or flirty when saying good-bye with the ILY handshape with the fluttering forefinger. Or, playful with the fluttering forefinger acting as "bye-bye", only if you understand the contexts.

Keep in mind that writing these examples are so black and white. In real life, there are all gray subtleties of meanings and contexts.

Cross-cultural handshape

Many (hearing) people mistook the ILY symbol for a horn symbol, overlooking or neglecting the significant difference of the thumb. To a hearing person, it may be not a much difference. But, for Deaf people, the position of the thumb is as different as night and day.

True story: In circa 1995, a hearing New York City entrepreneur, who learned about ILY from me, bought one online (no Google back then) and gifted a (possibly gold) necklace with the ILY pendant to his wife who was a hearing Russian actor and coda (child of Deaf parents). When opening the gift, she was horrified by the symbol what she believed to be "horn". No matter what he explained, the wife insisted it surely was the horn. Befuddled, the poor lad double checked with me and showed me the photo of the pendant; I assured him that it was indeed the ILY, not a horn or rock gesture. What a semi-flop (or altogether flat fall, I think). :)

While it may appear to be a little difference to some hearing non-signing people, it's a huge difference between the ILY handshape and the horn handshape for Deaf/ASL speakers as much as (excuse this hyperbole) the difference between the sun and the moon (forgivably, except for my then zero-year-old baby who thought the sun and the moon were the same thing, which was cute and naive). :)

The neighbor hearing cat apparently didn't think the ILY thing was cozy and loving, either. Just kidding. Back to the track...

Just in case not to confuse a naive hearing person further, the horn handshape (closed thumb) with the palm facing toward signer's body in ASL means bullshit. The palm orienation between palm facing in and facing out is as distinct as the pronunciation between 'ball' and 'bull' or 'bill' and 'bull'. Okay, perhaps except for some sound homonyms that sound alike.

Every culture/language has its own set of meanings as well as perceptions. One may interpret a single symbol differently from one culture or language to another.

Happy accidents

Besides the misfortune of the New Yorker's ILY pendant for his Russian wife, there are happy accidents. ILY can be not only found in hands, but sometimes come in odd places like a street light. :-O

ILY traffic light
Image posted on FB (Feb. 15, 2019) by Michael Baker who found this near his home in Bernalillo in New Mexico, USA. No photoshop.

"Sometimes burnt LEDs can lead to something even better! [ILY icon] :D" -- Joseph Wheeler (Feb. 15, 2019, FB).

The pedestrian stop light on the street in the photograph above surely made an ASL speaker delightfully smile, and obviously it made her/him stop and took a photograph while another clueless person might frown at this annoying broken light. Reality is a person's mirror.

Or, it can be sweetly naive in the hand of a Deaf parent's sleeping baby like my baby.

baby forming ILY
Image credit: Jolanta Lapiak. ILY handshape at 8 months old.

Phonological acquisition

The video shows how an infant (Juli) acquired the ASL words LOVE and ILY in a timeless time-lapse video of phonological and language development from birth to age 5. <3 <3

This video shows how the baby/child develops the handshape ILY from infant to child, just like a vocally-speaking child learns how to pronounce a certain syllable from birth to child.

ILY in other signed languages

In LSQ (a signed language used in Quebec and eastern parts of Canada), this different handshape is a Canadian-French abbreviation of "Je vous aime" or "Je t'aime".

i love you in LSQ
"Je vous aime" handshape in LSQ

Got any stories? Anecdotes?

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