American Sign Language – Ten Things to Know

by | October 13, 2020 |

Title Image Creator: Evan Vucci / Credit: AP / copyright: AP2006

Today I’m reposting a blog from September 13, 2017. The original inspiration for it came from watching coverage of Hurricane Irma. The American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter at the news conference, below, received a lot of attention.

My current inspiration for reposting the blog comes from new series Deaf U. It follows the lives of students at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. It just popped up on Netflix. And so I want to share again some information about ASL.

One thing to say about Deaf Culture is that it really is a distinctive culture. And I think Deaf U does a good job of portraying it.

Here’s the Official Trailer:

Here are 10 things you might like to know about ASL.

American Sign Language: One through Three

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

2. The exaggerated facial expressions of the interpreter, below, 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 requires raised brows. A what-question comes 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.

American Sign Language: Four Through Seven

4. Hand shape, hand orientationhand movement and hand placement (where the sign is made on the body) form words. 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 wants to rehearse something important, 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

American Sign Language: Eight Through Ten

8. Language problems afflicting 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, of “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 dates from 1864.

American Sign Language Gallaudet University

Chapel Hall, Gallaudet, with the US Capitol in the back right

Two points of interest:

  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. This means that in the dorms music blasts so that students can feel the beat. 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

Categorised in: , ,

This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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