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: 1040L

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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, lolcat and five-second rule made it in 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. 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. The difference is that ASL doesn’t have one official dictionary, so the whole process is a little more organic.

Bill Vicars, who is hard of hearing and culturally Deaf, owns a company called Lifeprint that 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, 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. 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 - to 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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Why might some new signs catch on, while others do not?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • Charlesm-dav
    9/18/2017 - 08:50 a.m.

    How cool words are added to sign language: This article is really cool because it shows how sign language needs to grow as the world grows. New things are added to this world like emojis, virtual reality, and phones to name a few. I think it´s great to add new words for people who were born with no hearing.

  • Tylerk-dav1
    9/18/2017 - 08:54 a.m.

    In response to " How Cool New Words Are Added To American Sign Language, " I think the reason some new signs catch on while others don't is because they are more popular than some. One example would be selfie vs lolcat. Almost everyone know what a selfie is, while others might not have known that lolcat is even a word till now.

  • Annas-dav1
    9/18/2017 - 08:56 a.m.

    Some of the new signs may catch on to sign language, is because a lot of deaf people have already learned the sign language alphabet and numbers and have been doing it for so long they can just learn more. Since deaf people already have tons to memorize and do it could be tough learning more. Like just saying the sentence, water is good for you. Is a lot for deaf people to do. It could go both ways for ASL new signs for all deaf people.

  • Griffinf-dav
    9/18/2017 - 08:56 a.m.

    In response to, "How Cool New Words Are Added To The American Sign Language," I think the reason that some signs do not catch on more than others is because some are more popular than others. Another reason is that some signs might be easier to do. It says in the article," It was deemed awkward because'photobomb'is technically an action with several different possibilities." A third reason is that some actions, like photobombing, can be a popular action but can be hard to sign. Even though some actions can be hard to sign, people are still working to make these signs.

  • Emmas-dav1
    9/18/2017 - 08:57 a.m.

    This article was very interesting because it talked about deaf or regular people learning new sign language. I think the new signs will catch on because everyone uses these words a lot in the 21st century. All the kids are using these words to sound cool and other kids, deaf or mute, should know what these mean so if someone ask them to take a selfie or if they want to take a selfie they can. I do not think other words will catch on because of the time period, people may think that the word is not important. In paragraph 8 it states that, signs may be different but you'll learn to understand.

  • Sadieb-dav
    9/18/2017 - 08:57 a.m.

    In response to "How cool new words are added to American Sign Language," I agree that several ASL dictionaries should be reasearched as well as different ASL users before adding a new official word to an ASL dictionary. One reason I agree is because different people may have a different way of presenting a somewhat uncommon word. Another reason is because not everybody knows these words, so they should be able only have to learn one popular way to say them. The article states that different ASL textbooks and dictionaries are reasearched and reviewed for this purpose. A third reason is because if everybody is doing something different, nobody will understand each other. This is why it is important to pick the most popular way to say a new word in ASL.

  • Reidk-dav
    9/18/2017 - 08:57 a.m.

    I think the reason new words would be easier to learn than other is that some new sighs will be a little more complicated than other like photobomb in the article. Some new sighs will be simple and easy to learn. This article is inspiring to help death people to learn new words without hearing!

  • holdenj-orv
    9/18/2017 - 11:36 a.m.

    Sign Language is Cool. I really mean it.

  • Parkera-dav
    9/18/2017 - 01:47 p.m.

    I believe this article was very informant on how new words are being added into the ASL dictionary. The article got me into the story and made me feel like it was some thing i had cared about for a long time. When it says that people use different signs for the same word it makes me feel like it would be very hard to be deaf.The fact that the ASL does not have a dictionary made me feel like it would be very hard to learn.

  • Gabbyk-dav1
    9/18/2017 - 01:49 p.m.

    In response to "How New Words Are Added to ASL," I agree that words can be added to ASL just like they can be added to the English language. One reason I agree is that new words are always being made so deaf people should learn them too. Another reason is that there is a dictionary for ASL just like there is one for English. It says in the article "Bill Vicars, who is hard of hearing and culturally Deaf, owns a company called Lifeprint that offers an ASL dictionary online." A third reason is that more people should know ASL. I think that more people should learn ASL to communicate with deaf people better. Even though I don't know ASL, I think
    that people that do should be able to communicate using everyday words.

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