American Sign Language – Ten Things to Know

by | September 13, 2017 |

Title image: Florida governor Rick Scott giving updates on Hurricane Irma. Note the American Sign Language interpreter to the left.

I’m sitting high and dry in Durham, North Carolina, and glued to television hurricane coverage because my principal residence is in downtown Orlando, and hurricane Irma is barreling toward my stuff and my friends. I have hurricane insurance and category 2 resistant glass, which I thought would be mightily tested when the early predictions showed the eye going over downtown. Now it seems that Tampa will bear more the brunt in Central Florida.

But that’s not the story here.

If you have been following the coverage as closely as I have, you may have noticed the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters who have always been at Governor Scott’s side. Here are 10 things you might like to know about ASL.

American Sign Language

1. American Sign Language is not signed English. It has its own syntax and vocabulary structure. It is not related to British Sign Language. Rather, it has historic ties to French Sign Language.

2. The exaggerated facial expressions of the interpreters might look goofy to someone who knows nothing about American Sign Language. However, the expressions are an integral part of the language. A yes/no-question will be asked with raised brows. A what-question will be asked with furrowed brows. The person asking the question is not angry.

The topic of the hurricane is dramatic, and so are the interpreter’s facial expressions and hand signs.

3. American Sign Language has a full range of expressive power just like any other language. People tell jokes, create poetry, produce plays – everything. And just like any other language there are regional differences, as well as differences in some signs used in the black and white Deaf communities.

4. Hand shape, hand orientationhand movement and hand placement (where the sign is made on the body) are the ways words are formed. Here are a few examples:

5. You sign with your dominant hand. If you are right-handed, you sign a one-handed sign with your right hand. If you are left-handed, you sign a one-handed sign with your left. Some signs use two-hands. If a two-handed sign has one hand that moves, you sign the moving part with your dominant hand.

An example is the word for tree:

6. What signers see from their POV when signing is not the same thing the viewer sees. This means that if someone has something important to communicate and wants to rehearse it, they will sign in front of a mirror to see “how it looks.”

7. Signers are used to seeing “flipped” signs, depending on whether they are interacting with a left-handed or right-handed signer. As a result signers perform really well on psychological tests where you have to rotate geometric shapes:


Answer? Dang if I know! I think 180 degrees may be involved and am inclined to say B

8. Language problems that afflict speakers also afflict signers. They can suffer from different kinds of aphasia (language loss), Tourette’s (multiple motor tics), psychosis and schizophrenia. If a dominant right-handed signer shifts to the left-hand or alternates between hands, this is a sign of mental illness, a “going off the rails.”

9. To yell in American Sign Language you give your signs punch. Speaking of punching, signers might sign in their sleep, just as speakers might talk in their sleep. Signing while sleeping thus creates a hazard for the person the signer is sleeping with.

10. Gallaudet University is the premier institution for higher education for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. It was founded in 1864 in Washington, DC.

American Sign Language Gallaudet University

Chapel Hall, Gallaudet, with the Capital in the background

  1. The President of the United States signs the diplomas of Gallaudet graduates.
  2. A Duke linguistics student went to Gallaudet for a “semester abroad.” When she returned I asked her about the atmosphere on campus. I imagined it to be quiet and calm. She laughed and pointed out that the university is also for the hard-of-hearing which means that in the dorms music is cranked up to the max. So her experience in the dorm was the opposite of quiet and was actually painful!

Final thought: American Sign Language is beautiful.

On a related subject, see: Hearing Loss and Its Effects on Communication

See also: Language Blogs

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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