How cool new words are added to American Sign Language (Turbo/Corbis)
How cool new words are added to American Sign Language
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Languages change. They must. For example, 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. Last year duckface was added. Also added were lolcat and five-second rule. 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. Turns out, change happens pretty much like it does in any other language. New signs crop up. They are shared and debated. Some catch on. Eventually, dictionaries reflect the language change. The difference is that ASL doesn’t have one official dictionary. This makes the whole process a little more organic.

Bill Vicars is hard of hearing and culturally Deaf. He owns a company called Lifeprint. It offers an ASL dictionary online. There is a host of resources online to share signs. He told Hopes&Fears:

“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. 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. The list includes duckface. It also includes 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. In the 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. You can catch "Mary" use a similar sign in this YouTube video. 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. 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.”

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


COMMENTS (44)
  • rachelb-cel
    9/15/2017 - 12:02 p.m.

    This article is really neat to me because it's about something that makes sense when you think about it, but something that doesn't usually cross the mind of an average person. Sign language is a language that not everyone feels necessary to learn, and most people don't really think about how users of the language also learn new words and create new lingo just as English-speaking people do. This article does a good job at providing several facts that prove this by stating how often sign language dictionaries have to be updated and sharing some included words. The article is a good source for someone who wants to learn more about sign language and also the struggles that come along with it. Like every language, sign language is very complex making it sometimes hard to comprehend how someone could literally communicate through hand motions, which this article makes you realize.

  • Ryderm-dav
    9/18/2017 - 08:53 a.m.

    In response to "How Cool New Words are added to american Sign Language," I agree that languages change. My first reason is that Oxford is always adding new words and making new words. My second reason is that a sign can mean several dimensions. My third reason is that one person's sign for a word might be different than another person's sign for that word. These conclude why I agree that languages change.

  • Carlys-dav1
    9/18/2017 - 08:58 a.m.

    This passage is really neat to me because think about when we learn a new word it can catch on because we can explain it to others, but in sign language, it takes a while before they can even use a sign to describe the word. There are different points of view from the word that has to be used differently. Like how they used 'photobomb'. They used this word to show how people use a sign but make it different from the different views. From people being photobombed, to the person photobombing.

  • Baileys-dav1
    9/18/2017 - 08:59 a.m.

    This passage, How Cool New Words are added to the American Sign Language is about how new words in sign language are explained. In the last paragraph it tells that new sign language is different for every person. This passage also explains how sign language works for everyone. I agree with this because all people talk differently. Overall this passage was very intresting and tells how people speak.

  • Braleya-dav
    9/18/2017 - 10:55 a.m.

    Some sign like hello or hi are never going to fade because people in everyday life use it a lot. When people use different words like recces its going to fade because not a lot of people now a days don't use it anymore.

  • Peytond-dav1
    9/18/2017 - 10:55 a.m.

    In response to "How cool new words are added to American Sign Language," I agree that new words should be added for sign language. One reason I agree is that if you know a sign person and you do something they might not understand. Another reason is that I think that new words should be added more because so you could learn and they can too It says in the article . A third reason "Turns out, change happens pretty much like it does in any other language. New signs crop up. They are shared and debated. Some catch on. Eventually, dictionaries reflect the language change. The difference is that ASL doesn’t have one official dictionary". Even though the ALS doesn't
    have a main dictionary , I think they should its realy important.

  • Peytond-dav1
    9/18/2017 - 10:56 a.m.

    In response to "How cool new words are added to American Sign Language," I agree that new words should be added for sign language. One reason I agree is that if you know a sign person and you do something they might not understand. Another reason is that I think that new words should be added more because so you could learn and they can too It says in the article . A third reason "Turns out, change happens pretty much like it does in any other language. New signs crop up. They are shared and debated. Some catch on. Eventually, dictionaries reflect the language change. The difference is that ASL doesn’t have one official dictionary". Even though the ALS doesn't
    have a main dictionary , I think they should its realy important.

  • GraceAnnm-dav
    9/18/2017 - 01:48 p.m.

    I agree with the fact that sign language is important, because there are so many deaf people in our community. I also think that there should be a dictionary for signs. I feel like people don't understand how hard it is to memorize so many different signs for so many different things. I really liked how this artical opened up my eyes.

  • Maddyc-dav1
    9/18/2017 - 01:50 p.m.

    I really liked this article because most people don't learn or hear about sign language. I thought that it was a little strange that there is no official sign language dictionary. I think there should be because there are dictionaries for several languages so why not sign language? I like how they included that there are always new words added like other languages and the author also showed how people say selfie in sign. This was a very interesting article because people don't really know about sign.

  • Connora-dav
    9/18/2017 - 02:49 p.m.

    In response to "How cool new words are added to American Sign Language," I agree that new words are being added due to the internet. One reason I agree is that in the article it shows a variety of words due to the Internet such as lolcat. Another reason is that it shows more words such as duck-face and a couple more. It says in the article, "In time, there will be a wholly accepted sign for the word photobomb. This shows that one day they will have it as a word. A third reason is that the internet is expanding and there will be many more words to come. So there might even be an entirely new word that we've never seen. Even though some people say photobomb will not become a word, I think it will due to the expansion of the internet. This is why I think photobomb will be a word in the near future.

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