Language of the Deaf Evolves To Reflect New Sensibilities (Published 1994) (2022)


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By Jennifer Senior

(Video) Artifacts, January 1994

Language of the Deaf Evolves To Reflect New Sensibilities (Published 1994) (1)

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January 3, 1994


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Perhaps as recently as two or three years ago, a deaf person would sign the word "Japanese" simply by twisting the little finger next to the eye.

But today, many of the more than 200,000 people who use American Sign Language avoid using this sign because it is a reference to a stereotypical physical feature, slanted eyes.

Instead, many deaf people here are adopting the Japanese's sign for themselves: pressing the thumb and index fingers of both hands together and then pulling them apart, carving the silhouette of Japan into the air.

Dorothy Casterline, a 65-year-old deaf woman of Japanese descent who lives in Laurel, Md., said: "When I was growing up, I didn't give that sign a thought. But now that we are becoming aware of cultural differences, people have feelings about it." Visually Provocative

The signs that are changing, like the spoken words that are dropping out of polite usage, are often those for ethnic groups. "In American Sign Language, politically incorrect terms are often a visual representation of the ugly metaphors we have about people," said Prof. Elissa Newport, a psychologist at the University of Rochester who studies how signed languages are learned.

The signs for "Chinese" and "Korean," which are made by forming the letters "C" and "K" around the eye, are changing. There is a new sign for "African-American"; by contrast, "Negro" was indicated by flattening the nose." The old sign for "homosexual" was a swish of the wrist. One sign replacing it is to sign "q" for "queer," a term once rejected by homosexuals but now in vogue among some.

And a sign for "stingy," derived from the sign for "Jewish" (stroking an imaginary beard), has started discussions among deaf Jews around the country, though no new sign has actually shown up in its stead. The sign adds a clenched or tight fist to the imaginary beard.

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"Political correctness has definitely crept into the deaf world," said Prof. Yerker Andersson, a sociologist here at Gallaudet University, the world's only liberal arts college for the deaf. "Though I don't always care to use that label, because some people use it negatively. When I say 'political correctness,' I mean 'increased sensitivity.' "

For many deaf people, the new signs are not only indications of sensitivity to those who feel slighted by stereotypes, but the signs also reflect deaf people's desire for recognition as a distinct group that deserves the same sort of deference being extended to ethnic, religious and racial minorities.

But replacing what have become regarded as insults with acceptable signs that also work visually is not simple. After the old sign for "Negro" came to be seen as pejorative, it was replaced by either of the signs for the color "black." In one, the index finger is placed by the eyebrow; in the other, it is wiped across the forehead.

Today, some deaf people, like hearing people, prefer the sign for "African-American." But the sign for "African" is changing, too, in part because it is still centered around the nose. The new sign is simply to outline the continent of Africa in the air with one's hand.

As the old sign for homosexual was dropped because of its suggestion that homosexuals were effeminate, an alternative sign was to run a middle finger through the hair, though most homosexuals also regarded that sign as an epithet because of its overtly feminine character.

The appropriate way to sign "homosexual" these days is to finger-spell it, or to place the sign for the letter "q" on the chin.

Sign language changes gradually, just as English does. The fine-tuned, sensitized signs have caught on mostly in urban settings and among the highly educated, much in the same way that words like "African-American" caught on first at college campuses. The changes have not yet been registered in the most widely available dictionaries of sign language.

Most sociologists believe that this attention to diversity has taken longer to catch on in the deaf community. "Deaf people have less access to the media," Professor Andersson said. "Hearing people, obviously, hear everything, everything, so they become more aware of small cultural changes. It takes deaf people a bit more time to realize them."

Some educators and sociologists also believe that these efforts to modify American Sign Language are of marginal value.

"Political correctness in the deaf community is certainly meaningful to a degree, because it addresses the stereotypes of certain groups," said Frederic Jondreau, the director of the American Sign Language Institute in Manhattan. "But I think its overall impact is questionable. The deaf don't really have the luxury of fully dealing with issues like race and gender yet. They're still addressing issues in deafness, like the acceptance of sign language."

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Some of the recent revisions in American Sign Language reflect this respect for linguistic sovereignty. Over the last 10 years, the deaf community has adopted dozens of signs that deaf people in other nations use for themselves, even though some of their earlier versions were not considered offensive.

Professor Andersson, who is also the President of the World Federation for the Deaf, says that deaf Americans are also adopting these signs because they have had more contact with their peers abroad in the last few years.

But he and other educators agree that this borrowing frenzy would never have happened if the culture at large had not become so attuned to issues of ethnic diversity.

"If there was no American sensitivity to political correctness, no one in the deaf community would be paying much attention to this," Mr. Jondreau said.

At times, the use of these foreign signs can get a bit complicated.

For example, putting one hand face down in front of the body and plucking something off it with the other, as if pulling a tissue out of a box, is the new American sign for Swedish. This sign, derived from mountains, is the one that deaf Swedes use for themselves. But in some dialects of American Sign Language it means "bald," and many Swedes would not consider that a compliment.

"When I first saw the sign, I thought, 'What do I do here about political correctness?' " said Ted Supalla, a professor of linguistics at the University of Rochester who specializes in signed languages. "But then I thought, 'Well it's their sign, I really should use it.' "

But this trend can also erase damaging stereotypes about the United States. The deaf in this country have recently begun to encourage their counterparts abroad to change their stereotyped signs for "American" to the sign that deaf Americans use for themselves. That sign is to lightly weave the fingers of both hands together in front of the body and bring them around in a circle, as if stirring a pot.

In Russia, this change certainly casts the United States in a more flattering light. There, the previous sign for "American" was to suggest a big belly with one hand and simultaneously mouth the word "capitalism."


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