Asking wh-questions in American Sign Language

Learn how to ask a wh-question in American Sign Language (ASL), using a wh-question signed word with its non-manual signal (NMS). A wh-question is referred to when, what, why, who, how, and where.

Use the indicators of the wh-questions: eyebrows burrowed, head tilting, and slightly hold the last signed word.

Wh-question WHAT

There are a few signs for WHAT. The most usage is this:

Wh-question: WHAT.

English translation: What is your name?
ASL GLOSS: you name what?

The down eyebrows and slightly leaning-foward shoulders indiciate the wh-question.

Wh-question WHERE

This one is more commonly used.

Wh-question for WHERE.

Wh-question WHO

There is a couple of signs WHO. One is the generational variation. The other is the common usage today.

Wh-question for WHO.

Wh-question WHEN

While there is an old variation, here is the common usage today.

Wh-question for WHEN.

Wh-question HOW

There are a few signs depending on context. Use the general one:

Wh-question: HOW.

Gloss: you come-to class how?
Translation: How did you come to class?

Wh-question WHY

ASL sign for WHY.

How to write wh-questions in ASL

Shortcuts to writing wh-questions in ASL

These shortcut digits show you how to write eight wh-questions in ASL (American Sign Language) writing. Those writing symbols are not often used, but they can be beneficial to know for writing.

how to write wh-questions in ASL
Symbols or digits excerpted from Adrean Clark, How to Write American Sign Language (2012), p 54. at / Robert Arnold Augustus et al. The ASL Writing Textbook, p 34.

It may appear to be a bit overwhelming for some learners. But, when you take a closer look, they would make sense. Think of the mnemonics:

All of them have the same symbol, "V". This "V" digit stands for the burrowed eyebrows. Below the "V" digit are two dots which are eyes. Personally, I probably would omit the eye-dots to reduce the strokes in writing.

Next, a mark on the upper corner of the digit "V" correlates with a distinctive characteristics of each WH quesiton. The round mark is for WHO (with the "oo" mouth morpheme). The straight slash for WHAT feels straightforward. The piggy tail for WHEN relates to the movement of the ASL sign WHEN. The rattle movement mark for WHERE is self-explanatory. The alternative movement for WHICH. And so on. The rest of them feels or looks "onomatopoeic", too.

They are quite clever digits. And fun. Now you can practice writing. Copy and write them.

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Question signals for yes/no question, question in sign language, and rhetorical question