Learn the sign language of physics, male genitalia

A couple of years ago, Scientific American's Ferris Jabr wrote a really fascinating story about the sign language of science. Along the way, he touched on an issue I'd never thought of before. Turns out, a lot of technical, scientific terms haven't made their way into official sign language vocabulary. At the same time, these words are often far too long to bother fingerspelling. The solution: Translators at scientific conferences invent signs, often on the fly.

Not surprisingly, though, that can get confusing. What if two translators use different signs for the same word? That's why the Scottish Sensory Centre has taken the time to standardize translations of 119 words from the world of physics into British Sign Language. The the new signs will make it easier for Deaf students to understand what they're learning in science class, and make physics more open to them as a career choice.

The glossary builds on existing signs used by the deaf community and on "the visual or metaphorical relationship to what the things are like in real life", explains O'Neill.

The signs also build on one another to help convey the scientific relationships between the terms. The sign for mass, for example, is a fist which is then used as a basis for the sign for density (a hand around the fist) and weight (the hand and fist moving downwards).

Coincidentally, within minutes of spotting this story, I came across another bit of specialized sign language vocabulary. In a tweet, mjrobbins linked to a poster that provides everything you need to know to talk about a man's naughty bits in (I think) British Sign Language.

See the poster (NSFW, probably)

Read the rest of the story about the new sign language physics vocabulary at New Scientist



  1. The poster was disappointing.  We have over 203o4756034879 words for penis, but only 4-5 signs?

  2. Is there sign language slang? How limited are the movements of the hands? Is it possible to create new words to mean the same thing, or are you stuck with having to use the medical terms for everything?

    1.  My friend is a BSL interpreter, and yes, there’s a lot of slang and jokes, some of which doesn’t really translate.

  3. When I first read the title, “Learn the sign language of physics, male genitalia,” I thought that in some strange way male genitalia were “the sign language of physics!” I was rather disappointed to discover this wasn’t what you meant. My world just got a little bit less surreal.

  4. Isn’t signing a dying technology?  Voice to speech algorithms are pretty good these days.


    I meant voice to text.

    1.  I think not since signing is a goodly portion of deaf culture.  Some still use pen and paper when there are perfectly good word processors to be had.

    2. Voice to speech? I think we’ve had that covered for a while now, but I’m not sure how it would help deaf people! On Chinese TV, almost everything (news, TV serials, adverts) has simultaneous subtitles as standard. I find that even just as a poor Chinese speaker it helps me to make up for any meaning that is lost when listening. Is that a feature that you can turn on and off on most TVs in America?

      1. Are the subtitles to help the deaf or those whose putonghua is not up to scratch? Is there Chinese sign language? Sign language cannot yet be written, as far as I know. It is more than a manual transliteration of spoken language.

        1. I think the main issue is that Chinese has a lot of words that have the same sound (and often the same tone) but different meanings. Most words are comprised of between one and three syllables that can be words themselves, so a lot more of the meaning is gathered from context in normal speech than with English. I’d say the subtitles are there to add a bit of redundancy to a situation where the meaning wouldn’t always be clear. I do find it’s very helpful for Chinese learners though, and I’m sure deaf people appreciate it too!

          I do see Chinese people signing quite often, and would love to learn sign language if only it were just one! Unfortunately we travel around enough that I’m not sure which one I should learn. Does anyone know how similar the different sign languages are, and whether learning any one would be a helpful base or just confusing when I did move countries?

          1.  Many world signed languages are based on French sign language, including American. British sign language is an entirely different animal. Even the alphabet is unrelated.

            French and American sign language are different enough to have different grammars, but you’ll recognize many of the same words in both. You could do worse than to start with one of those.

        2. An interesting ‘vocal transliteration’ of spoken language would be Silbo Gomero, which is spoken in the Canary Islands, particularly in La Gomera. If you speak any Spanish, you might understand some of the language, as the subtitles are given at the bottom. It’s basically an approximation of the sounds using whistling (‘silbar’ in Spanish). Once you get the hang of it, it isn’t that difficult to understand and you can send fairly complex messages a few kilometers away. It also isn’t limited to an approximation of Spanish (and didn’t start with Spanish either), so I can’t understand why it’s not spoken more widely around the world.


  5. So if you pour water in your hands and make the sign for testes does that imply sweaty balls?

  6. It should be pointed out that this will not necessarily translate for Americans and Canadians, because American Sign Language (which is used in Canada as well {According to Wikipedia}) derives from French rather than British Sign Language, and so signs invented as part of British Sign Language won’t necessarily have the same intuitive meaning, or even not already mean something else, in American Sign Language.

  7. There’s a Master’s in sign language interpreting in my school. Apparently they invent signs all the time, it’s really a vibrant culture with lots of stuff going on. 

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