How do you sign “new” words? The Deaf community works as a network, collectively brainstorming new sign language terms over the web, until dominant signs emerge.
As language evolves, the powers that regulate language tend to shift. Just look at the Oxford English Dictionary, who added terms like “duck face,” “lolcat,” and “hawt” to their prestigious lexicon this past December. For the English-speaking world, these additions are anywhere from ridiculous to annoying but at the end of the day, the terms are accepted and agreed upon.
But how do these new, internet-laden turns of phrase enter the sign language community? Was there a way of expressing “selfie” in ASL, was there a sign for “photobomb?” Our simplistic question turned into a larger conversation about the nature of communication.
We turned to Bill Vicars, the president and owner of an organization called Lifeprint, a company who educates through “technology-enhanced delivery of ASL Instruction, excursion-based instruction (trips to amusement parks), and extended-immersion-based program coordination (intense two-week residencies).” Vicars himself is Deaf/HH, which means he is hard of hearing and culturally Deaf as he has immersed himself in the Deaf community. “In addition to my co workers, the majority of my friends are Deaf… my wife is Deaf,” Vicars explains. (Capitalizing ‘Deaf’ refers to the Deaf community, as noted by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, in Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (1988), “We use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language – American Sign Language (ASL) – and a culture.”) Vicars’ website also offers a dictionary of ASL signs. The dictionary has been an ongoing project for Vicars since he started his organization and his means of including words is a multi-tiered process:
“As I go about the process of deciding which signs to include in my dictionary and lessons, I have found that a multi-step approach to verification is the Most Unexceptional way to go. First, I do a ‘literature review.’ I compare numerous respected sign language dictionaries and textbooks to see how the sign is demonstrated in those dictionaries. Occasionally, the dictionaries conflict with each other but eventually a dominant sign tends to emerge. After doing a thorough review of the literature it is time to interview a cross section of Deaf adults who have extensive experience signing… I make it a goal to ask a minimum of ten advanced Deaf signers how ‘they’ do it. The next stage of investigating a sign is to consider how the sign is done in other locations and decide which version is more widely used… The last stage is to post the sign online to my website where it is exposed to the scrutiny of thousands of individuals – many of whom then email me and tell me their version is better.”
Demonstrating the nature of how his dictionary evolves, Vicars forwaded us a correspondence he had ten years ago where another member of the Deaf community challenged the way Vicars communicated the sign for ‘China/Chinese.’ Upset that Vicars’ term for China was taken from Chinese Sign Language rather than American Sign Language, the man claimed it was presumptuous to call the ASL term for China an old sign while denoting the CSL sign for China the correct sign. “The fun thing about ‘living languages’ is that they are always evolving and changing,” Vicars explained.
“You might want to consider that many English words that originated in other countries were ‘grafted’ into English and are now commonly considered to be part of the English language. The same process takes place in ASL. Whether a sign becomes accepted or not, only time will tell.”
Vicars complied to the concerned man’s request, calling the new CSL sign a “loan” sign while calling ASL’s version a “traditional” sign. But Vicars was quick to note that ten years after this email correspondence, the “new (loan) sign for ‘China’ is well established here in the United States as the appropriate ASL sign for ‘China.’”
And while Lifeprint is one of the more popular ASL websites, Vicars notes that there is no “official” ASL website, as the government has yet to make one, leaving only a few grassroots sites to fill the void.
When we asked Douglas Ridloff if he had ever heard of Lifeprint, he hadn’t. Douglas is an ASL artist, actor and educator and the current coordinator of ASL Slam, a space for Deaf performing artists to share poetry and storytelling in American Sign language. “It’s almost like an open mic if you will,” Douglas communicated via interpreter over the phone, “I call it an open stage because we don’t use a mic. Basically, the mission of ASL Slam is to provide a space for people to develop their own work, to give a venue to artists who have been working a long time… It’s all about collaboration, between artists and the community.”
We asked Douglas Ridloff about how new technology enters ASL and he described the different ways in which terms are brought in.
“With words like ‘Glide’ or ‘Instagram,’ we’ve started to see signs emerge,” Ridloff explained. “As a collective, we see various signs until one emerges as the agreed upon sign by a collaboration of the community. A few months ago, this became a very hot topic online, people were throwing out suggestions for different signs that could designate the concept of ‘Glide.’ We eventually narrowed it down to one sign that everyone in this online community agreed to use… In terms of Instagram, I still see quite a bit of variety regarding the sign usage, we haven’t seen a consensus yet. I think there are several reasons why. For instance, the CEO from Glide got involved and it was really key that he was a part of that collaboration in coming up with one definitive sign. When it comes to Instagram, a representative has yet to be involved in that process, so no consensus has been reached and thus it will take longer to come to a consensus. There isn’t an official canon or anything. It’s a small community.”
We invited Douglas and one of his Deaf students, 12-year-old Brooklyn resident Tully Stelzer, to a video shoot to sign some of these newer Internet terms on camera and to have a dialogue about it and the difference between how separate generations sign and the ways in which communication is learned.
When we met up with Douglas, Tully, Tully’s father Roy (who is also Deaf) and their interpreter, Lynnette Taylor, Douglas and Tully were already prepared, having discussed the terms beforehand.
Lynnette signed the cues for Tully and Roy, performing like an Olympic ballerina, seamlessly signing our words while having a separate conversation in English. It struck us how talented and perceptive a professional sign language interpreter must have to be.
Tully seemed nervous but gradually fell into place, performing like a seasoned professional. She already had some experience in front of the camera, performing in an ASL homage to Pharrell’s song “Happy” on Youtube. As we adjusted her seat, Tully signed to Lynnette who told us that Tully says she doesn’t sign so low. We didn’t understand until Lynnette explained, “Men sign lower than women, men sign closer to the hip.”
Practicing off camera, Douglas got Lynette’s attention to ask me if “photobomb” was a verb or a noun. “A verb,” I said, still somewhat unsure of my answer. Douglas told me that he was nervous about the piece as he would get heat from the community if they disagreed with his decisions. Realizing how varied the responses might be for the piece, I asked Douglas and Tully to talk about their process of developing these signs. What started out as a question had turned into a discussion without an answer.
DOUG: A week ago, we got a list of nine different words from Hopes&Fears. Some of them were technical words that have been printed in the Oxford Dictionary, and it made me really think about how some of these I never use while some of them I use on occasion. Which ones did you find easy?
TULLY: I thought that “selfie” was really easy.
DOUG: My sign for selfie was a little bit different than yours. I did it by pushing the button on the camera, but our concepts are almost the same. It felt easy because it’s almost like following common sense of what we do organically.
TULLY: What was the most difficult word for you, Doug?
DOUG: I think the most difficult word from the list was “photobomb.” “Photobomb” was a bit of a challenge. I asked others in the community how they sign it, and we had all different versions, and so we’ll see what the comments are. Some people agreed and disagreed, but this is the one I chose. You could also change it depending on whose POV you are presenting: am I taking the picture or am I the one in the picture doing the “photobomb?” So it brought about quite a hot discussion about which way to sign “photobomb.” Which of these words do you never use?
TULLY: I never use “five-second rule.”
DOUG: When you’re signing with your friends, and food falls on the floor, what do you do?
TULLY: Well, we just do it, we don’t sign it. Food drops on the floor, we get it just in time, that was sort of my translation.
DOUG: For “five-second rule,” we don’t say it figuratively, right? We don’t say “five-second rule,” we sign it in a different way. So the food dropped on the floor and I got it just in time. There are different ways to say “just in time,” too. We have different signs to express that concept. What do you think of “onesie?”
TULLY: I never use that word. I think it’s a popular word now, I mean it’s popular in fashion, but I just did, “I put on one item.” That was my sign.
DOUG: I went to pajamas. Like you said, it’s sort of a new term for me, I guess I’m behind in fashion. I guess I’m going to have to catch up with my reading.
TULLY: So, let us know your opinion. If you have your own signs for these words, send us your video.
AFTER THE SHOOT, we realized that the conversation was only beginning. When Douglas showed his sign for “photobomb” to his peers in the Deaf community, a discussion ensued and his sign was not accepted. He wrote me the following week to explain.
“It was deemed awkward because ‘photobomb’ is technically an action with several different possibilities,” he wrote. “ASL is non-linear — a sign can incorporate several dimensions — temporal, spatial and numeral. For example, if a person is photobombing a crowd of people, this would require a different sign as opposed to a person photobombing another individual. This person also could photobomb within the foreground or in the background, which again would impact how the sign is executed. This also brings to question who the subject is — the person being photobombed, the photobomber or the photographer. The other challenge with the sign I presented is the fact that it involves too many moving parts at the same time, a violation of the grammatical rules of ASL. This is an example of how the democratic Deaf community breathes life into signs. My point is this: the sign I presented during the shoot at Hopes&Fears is only the beginning of a dialogue of an actual sign. In time, there will be a wholly accepted sign for the word photobomb.”
Until then, the dialogue continues.