Friday, March 10, 2006

Apple #154: American Sign Language

I had so much fun last time, learning about something totally new to me, that I decided I wanted to try it again. So I browsed through some online encyclopedias, looking for a subject that I knew little about and that intrigued me. I came across an entry for American Sign Language and remembered I've been curious how this lexicon of hand motions was devised. Also, if there's an American Sign Language, does that mean that there are other sign languages used in other countries?

  • American Sign Language is a visual-spatial language used in the United States and English-speaking parts of Canada.
  • It is said that ASL is the fourth most commonly used language in the United States.
  • There are other sign languages in other languages, such as Japanese Sign Language, British Sign Language (which is very different from ASL), Old French Sign Language, and more.
  • Regionalisms and jargon have developed within ASL, the same as they do in any language. For example, people in different parts of the country use different signs for "Christmas," and "birthday." Also, signs may vary depending on the signer's race, ethnicity, or even age.
  • ASL uses a grammar and syntax of its own. It is not simply a representation of written or spoken English in sign form, but in fact its grammar and rules of making words (morphology) are entirely unique. If you want to sign according to English grammar rules, this is called something different: Signed Exact English or Manually Coded English.
  • Just as in a written language that builds words from roots, or that modifies common chunks of letters with the alteration of one or two letters to create a unique word (e.g., dog, hog, frog, or mother to mother-in-law), so does ASL build signs for words from alterations to "root" signs, so to speak. For example, the sign for "daughter" combines the sign for "girl" and "baby." The sign for "rattlesnake" first uses the sign for "snake," followed by a shaking motion meant to represent the way a rattlesnake's tail moves.
  • Lots of schools and programs teach American Sign Language, but the institution considered the top of the heap for learning ASL or indeed many things related to deaf culture is Gallaudet University, located in Washington, DC.
  • Gallaudet University is named for Thomas Gallaudet, who founded the first school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1817, he brought a French teacher named Laurent Clerc to the United States, and Clerc began teaching French Sign Language to American deaf students. However, many of his students were already fluent in their own forms of signing. It is thought that today's American Sign Language is the descendant of this hybridization of signed languages.
  • Michigan State University's Communication Technology Laboratory put together the American Sign Language Browser, essentially an online dictionary that provides demonstrations of the signs for I don' t know how many words. Scads of them. This is not the only online dictionary of sign language, but it's one that includes videos.
  • I've always thought that making signs for concepts might be tricky, so I looked a few of them up. Turns out, it's not that hard to express concepts in a physical way that makes sense. Here are some of the signs that I found interesting: (you'll need QuickTime to view these videos)
    • Quaker: knit fingers together in front of torso and twirl thumbs "to represent someone waiting for spiritual guidance."
    • Make-Believe: close hand in a fist with pinkie extended (the sign for i), point pinkie to forehead and pull hand away in one, two jerks while leaning forward. Sort of looks like you're saying, "stoo-pid."
    • Persecution: make two fists but extend first finger and bend it (the sign for x in each hand), then gesture both hands forward in a kind of x shape one across the other very firmly. The sign is meant to represent pain being inflicted repeatedly or someone being tortured. The action does look violent.
    • Mischief: hold up first two fingers of each hand, bring hands to forehead and scrunch fingers the way people often do when they're making the signal for quotation marks. In this case, the fingers are meant to indicate the horns associated with devils.
    • Democrat: make the sign for d and shake or waggle the hand in front of the body. Looks sort of like scolding.
    • Republican: make the sign for r and shake or waggle the hand slightly to the side of the body. This also looks like scolding.
    • Feces: the fist of one hand is closed arount the thumb of the other, and the thumb is jerked out from within the fist.
    • Forgive: one hand is held palm up and the other hand brushes it off, to suggest that whatever was there has been removed.
  • If you want to learn American Sign Language, you have all sorts of options, from software and DVD programs, to online tutorials, to classes taught in local community centers, and college-level courses across the country. To get started, try a Google search for "learning american sign language."
Karen Nakamura, Deaf Resource Library, About American Sign Language
National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, American Sign Language
Sign Media, Introduction to American Sign Language
Communication Technology Library, Michigan State University, American Sign Language Browser

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