How cool new words are added to American Sign Language
How cool new words are added to American Sign Language (Turbo/Corbis)
How cool new words are added to American Sign Language
Lexile: 1300L

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Languages must change - even stickler grammarians have to admit that "impact" has gained popularity as a verb - even if it’s still annoying to some. The Oxford Dictionaries are always adding words: duckface, lolcat and five-second rule made it in last December. As evidenced by that list, the internet is a cauldron of word evolution and like all other languages, American Sign Language has to incorporate the phrases and terms that spring from it.

A story at Hopes&Fears explores exactly how ASL is incorporating all these internet-y words and it turns out, change happens pretty much like it does in any other language: New signs crop up and are shared and debated; some catch on. Eventually, dictionaries reflect the language change but the difference is that ASL doesn’t have one official dictionary, so the whole process is a little more organic.

There is a host of resources online to share signs, says Bill Vicars, who is hard of hearing and culturally Deaf and owns a company called Lifeprint that offers an ASL dictionary online: 

“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.”

But not everyone in the Deaf community uses Lifeprint. ASL artist, actor and educator Douglas Ridloff learns new signs through different means. "We see various signs until one emerges as the agreed upon sign by a collaboration of the community," he explains. But still, it requires discussion until one sign emerges as the best and sometimes consensus takes a while. 

Ridloff and one of his students, 12-year old Tully Stelzer, showed Hopes&Fears the signs they use for some of the new words, including duckface, emoji and screencap. Both Tully and Ridloff have different signs they use, but the similarities are easy to pick out.

For example, their signs for "selfie" are rather intuitive and in their discussion, Doug tells Tully: 

“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.”

Once you've seen the sign for selfie, it's easy - even if you're not familiar with ASL - to catch "Mary" use a similar sign in this YouTube video as she tells the story of a photographer who leaned close to a squirrel for selfie, only to be jumped by the animal.

But other signs are still being sorted out. Doug wrote to Hopes&Fears that after showing his sign for "photobomb" to other members of the Deaf community:

“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 and 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 and in time, there will be a wholly accepted sign for the word photobomb.

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Why might some new signs catch on, while others do not?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • samirad-cel
    9/19/2017 - 12:32 p.m.

    The fact that the ASL community will soon be able to voice the things that they couldn't before is very exciting. They can keep up with the constant changing rules of social language without having to go through the complications of telling everyone. Everyone would know that they're trying to say, even if the people don't know sign language.

  • mollyn-cel
    9/20/2017 - 12:02 p.m.

    Not all signs reach different areas in the world Even new words in English don't get spread all around the USA nether the less England or Canada. Media does connect new forms of words but not everyone is on media. It is impossible to inform every deaf person of the new sign for "lolcat".

  • jamiyac-cel
    9/21/2017 - 11:47 a.m.

    I feel as if it is a positive contribute to add more signs to the ASL Dictionary. It'll help deaf individuals be able to use the same "social media" terms as others that aren't deaf. It won't let the deaf individuals feel left out.

  • annec-cel
    1/05/2018 - 01:06 p.m.

    Sign language reflects regional dialects so some signs might only apply to certain areas or be isolated from the larger Deaf community. If one sign for a word more naturally portrays the object or action, more people would learn and use it due to its intuitive nature. Less distinctive signs, like the one for photobomb, are more complicated and the varied forms make it less likely for it to become widespread. The same rules for any new word apply to signs. ASL is its own distinct language with its own accompanying culture so words develop and change just like any other language.

  • NinaD-pla
    1/29/2018 - 02:57 p.m.

    The process of adding new words into the dictionary may seem irrelevant to English speakers because people incorporate the word into conversations long before the dictionary acquires it. Yet, ASL users must have a "dictionary" of new words before they can know the correct sign for something. According to the article, adding new words to ASL takes a lot more trial and error than spoken langues because people interpret and sign things differently and no official ASL dictionary exists. Bill Vicars, creator of Life Print, one of many ASL dictionary consults many Deaf adults advanced in ASL, after comparing other ASL sources for similar signs. Even then many people still disagree on the signs for new words, but the long process adds a lot of new means of expression to the already amazing language. This relates to civil engagement because giving people who use sign language to communicate the same means of communication as those who use a spoken language is important to the progress and advancement of America, and every other country as well.

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