ASL University

American Sign Language: "dinosaur"

The sign for dinosaur uses a flattened "O" handshape to show a dinosaur walking past. The arm bounces up and down a bit (as if taking steps) as it travels in front of you.


[Special thanks to ASL Model: Christopher Palaia, Native ASL Deaf Signer / Deaf Interpreter / Advanced ASL instructor]

Just as some dinosaurs evolved and others died out -- some signs evolve and others die out.

Over time ASL has been evolving away from overlaps with "Signed English."  One such evolution is discontinuing the use of unnecessary "initialization" of signs.  An "initialized" sign uses the initial letter of an English word as the handshape of a sign. 

For example, when I grew up (not quite in the dinosaur time period) it was common to initialize the sign for dinosaur with a "D" handshape.  Below is an example of an older sign for "dinosaur" which uses a "D" hand (or a flattened "O"-hand) to show a dinosaur walking past. The arm bounces up and down a bit (as if taking steps) as it travels in front of you from one side toward the other while using a facial expression that conveys something big, heavy, and ominous walking by.


A common comment in the second decade of the 2K millennium hurled at (some) older initialized signs is "That's Signed English!"   However, let me share this bit of insight with you.  Thirty years ago (mid-1980's as of this writing) the initialized version of the sign for "dinosaur" wasn't Signed English -- it was just how most of us Deaf people signed it.  Now, decades later the movement in the Deaf Community away from initialization has caused many signs to shift from being considered "typical everyday ASL" to instead being considered "Signed English."  That is why it is nice to be able to update an ASL dictionary "online" as the language evolves. - Dr. Bill

Animation: dinosaur-[old/initialized-version]


In a message dated 2/22/2005 12:49:59 PM Pacific Daylight Time, kputski@_______ writes:
Dr. Bill,
I have seen two variations on the sign for dinosaur that are different from the one you use. One has the dominant hand's elbow resting on the down-facing, non-dominant hand. The dominant hand has the fingers on the thumb  like a closed, flattened "c" formation, but the "head" sways from side to side.
The other variation that I saw was where the dominant hand makes a "d" shape, then bounces several times across the top of the head front to back like making "spikes" on the head.   Are these widely-accepted variations, or more regional variations?  


[Reply from Dr. Bill, updated 2016/11/08]

Hi Kim,

Use of the bottom hand is a bit more formal version of the sign.  Removal of the bottom (or "base") hand starts turning the sign into a "depictive" sign (sometimes called a "classifier").  You can see how removing the base hand frees up the dominant hand to move more freely -- thus allowing you to depict (show) exactly what that dinosaur is doing!

If you were telling a story about dinosaurs you would likely use a process of introducing the topic and/or establishing context by showing a picture or mentioning a dinosaur movie. If you are in an academic setting you might then fingerspell "dinosaur" or type it on the display (since a student may need to recognize or spell that word on a written (English-based) test later. Then you'd show the two-handed formal sign for dinosaur using the "flattened O" handshape and the  palm-down flat base hand.  Then, after your have context (it is established that you are discussing dinosaurs) you can drop the base hand and start using the dominant hand to show (depict) what that dinosaur is "doing."  (Eating leaves from a tree, fighting another dinosaur, walking around, etc.)

If you have whipped out a book with a big picture of a dinosaur and it is obvious that you are talking about dinosaurs you can jump straight to using a depictive sign (with a flattened-O handshape representing the head) -- the base hand is not needed. 
That second version you mention ("D's" going backward along the top of the head) is not widely used. Also, these days the "D" would certainly be banished.  I personally would only use that "spikes down the back" variation if the handshape was modified to be an "index finger" and then only use it to describe specific dinosaurs with spikes doing down their backs.  It still wouldn't be the "general" sign for "dinosaur" but it could be "a" sign for a "type" of dinosaur if you were telling a story about various types of dinosaurs.  It seems to me that the handshape would actually tend to be a "FLAT"-hand since it would better represent the types of "spikes" I see going down the backs of dinosaurs that have spikes. (I don't see this in person of course, just in movies and artist's renderings).   I suppose if it were a triceratops you could use a modified "3" or a "W" handshape on the head with the fingers (and/or thumb) pointing mostly forward.  Describing various dinosaurs would make a fun assignment for a "classifiers" (depictive signing) class.
-- Dr. Bill
In a message dated 2/22/2005 7:02:51 PM Pacific Standard Time, kputski@______ writes:
Dr. Bill,
Thanks for the information. When I would use that to tell children's stories, could that first dinosaur sign be used as (for lack of a better description) a classifier...for making the dinosaur look around, etc.?
- Kim

Yes, exactly! It could (and should).
-- Dr. Bill

Remember:  Your local teacher is "right" for the duration of his/her class.  Get the grade you want then go out in the Deaf world and see how signing is done in the real world.  Also remember, the (so called) "right" sign in one location may not be common in a different region.  That is why I say: "Learning to sign without interacting with Deaf people is like trying to learn how to swim without getting in the water."


You can learn American  Sign Language  (ASL) online at American Sign Language University
ASL resources by    Dr. William Vicars