Online mag Hopes & Fears asked an educator in American Sign Language and his young assistant to demonstrate various internet jargon such as "emoji" and "photobomb". Each demo is captured in a short video loop. SMH portrays all the disgust involved in shaking one's head at something really stupid; Screengrab involves a nice gesture that enacts the mechanism of a phone display flashing in one's hand.
Since there's no central authority for such neologisms, some signs were ones used among friends while others were reached by consensus among members of the Deaf community online.
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I've been fascinated by the history and development of sign language for a while now. Highly linked to local Deaf cultures, individual sign languages have deep roots in the home-made systems people came up with in order to communicate with one another and with their families at times when Deaf people were often a lot more socially isolated than they are today. That means that each sign language is unique — even British and American sign language aren't at all the same thing. English is spoken in both countries, but the cultural history that gave birth to sign was sufficiently different to produce two completely different languages that are unintelligible to one another. (Meanwhile, American sign language is much closer to French, because it also has roots in a system imported from France in the 19th century.)
In that case, it was a physical distance that lead to the development of two different sign languages. But, within the United States, the same thing happened because of social distance. Turns out, there is a Black American sign language that is distinctly different, as a language, from ASL. Its roots lie in segregation, and especially in separate-and-not-at-all-equal school systems. Ironically, though, that meant sign language had a more prominent place in black schools for much of the 20th century. At white schools, up until the 1970s and 1980s, students were heavily pressured to speak and lip-read, rather than sign — because it was thought to be better. Meanwhile, at black schools, sign language continued to be heavily used, growing and changing. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
Last year, I stumbled across some of the cool history of American Sign Language, documenting how it evolved out of both formal and informal languages—systems Deaf children used to communicate at home, and the systems they were taught as Deaf schools drew diverse groups from a wide geographical range. For American Sign Language, this process happened in the 19th century. In other parts of the world, it's still ongoing. For instance, in Nicaragua, Deaf people who are in school now are learning a much more formalized language, with a much bigger vocabulary, than those who went to school in the 1980s.
Those international differences are fascinating to me, so I'm really pleased to find this post on the Sinosplice blog, discussing the Chinese system of finger spelling. The blogger there is a linguist, so there's a lot of neat perspective in the linked post and others on the linguistic mechanics of finger spelling and sign language in China.
Finger spelling is very different from a sign language. In a sign language, you'd have one hand movement or hand position that stands for the concept "bird." In finger spelling, you'd have several different movements/positions for each letter or sound of the word "bird." You probably picked up some American finger spelling from Sesame Street, it's likely to at least look somewhat familiar. But the really cool thing about this post, is that it contrasts that system with the finger spelling alphabets used in Russia, Japan, and several that have been used historically in China. Read the rest