American Sign Language and the American Deaf Community Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

American Sign Language and the American Deaf Community

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Contrary to popular belief, the sign language used by the deaf community is not universal. Sign language exists in different forms, similarly to how there are different languages throughout the world. American Sign Language, or ASL1, is also known in some regions as Ameslan and Amerslan. It is a language capable of expressing a range of emotions and ideas, just like any spoken language. ASL is the dominant form of sign language found in the United States and parts of Canada, and, interestingly, is more similar to French Sign Language than British Sign Language.

There is no sign language that is the exact translation of spoken language into motions. This being so, ASL is not simply the transcription of English into signed motions. There is often a confusion between Signed English (SE), Signed Exact English (SEE) and ASL. Many people who are unfamiliar with sign language tend to think that all three are one and the same. However, this is not the case and there are unique qualities which define each.

SE uses the same word order and grammar structure as spoken English while using a limited vocabulary derived from ASL. SE's similarity in structure to spoken and written English was initially developed in intent to teach deaf children to read. Unfortunately, as ASL uses an individual and unique grammar structure, SE proved difficult to teach. Deaf people also found it to be rather limiting in terms of vocabulary, and so it never gained widespread acceptance.

SEE was developed to work with very much the same premise as SE, transcribing English into motions, but also included an expanded vocabulary. However, it was found that SEE could be more awkward in communicating ideas than ASL and this too was not widely popular with the deaf community.

SE and SEE have tended to be used predominantly by people with limited hearing2 and people who combine signing and lip reading. Hearing impaired children who have been mainstreamed into regular classes have used SE and SEE, but completely deaf children often go to schools where ASL is the predominant language. It is sometimes the case that when hearing impaired children and deaf children are mainstreamed into regular classrooms they can be assigned a paraprofessional familiar in ASL, SE or SEE.

However, as long as there have been deaf Americans, some sort of ASL has existed. ASL was developed and expanded upon by the deaf Americans themselves and was standardized by Gallaudet University, America's premier Deaf University in Washington DC.

Its standardisation grew out of the deepening necessity for a better form of communication. Prior to the standardisation of ASL, deaf children were forced to learn lip reading and vocalisation. Signing of any form was considered 'abnormal' and was therefore forbidden if the deaf children were to fit into standard society. Unfortunately, lip shapes are often extremely similar, taking for example the words 'fifteen' and 'fifty'. The similarity in words while lip reading created an extreme obstacle to communication.

Myths about ASL

There are many myths spread about ASL. A few of the most common are as follows:

  • Myth - ASL is direct translation.

    Truth - As already mentioned, each sign language including ASL has its own unique grammar structure. For example, 'What is your name?' in English is literally 'Name you what?' in ASL. Similarly, 'Where is the water fountain?' translates to 'Where water fountain where?'.

  • Myth - ASL is entirely composed of spelling out words through the American Manual Alphabet3.

    Truth - Sign language uses a combination of spelled words, natural gestures and created motions. Finger spelling is only used in the instances of people's names, the names of places, brand names and titles of books, movies, plays, etc. Occasionally, short words such as 'bus,' 'park' or other words with a quick and uniquely spelled hand shape are simply spelled out.

    In regards to names, often a specific sign is created to 'nickname' a person. Such signs usually incorporate the person's initials and a unique physical trait or description. Such signs are never used when being introduced or when speaking of someone who is not there. In these cases, the entire name is spelled out. Hearing people should not create their own signs and should allow a deaf person to create their 'nickname' sign for them. The reasoning behind this is that new signs are always being developed and incorporated into the language. Having a deaf person create your 'nickname' for you helps prevent the embarrassment of finding that the sign you have given yourself has some other meaning.

  • Myth - ASL is entirely based on hand motions and hand shape.

    Truth - An important aspect to ASL is facial expression. The position of one's eyebrows, whether one is nodding or shaking one's head and one's lip shape can change the entire meaning of a signed word. Likewise, the position of one's body and hands can also change a word's meaning, such as in the words 'niece' and 'nephew'. The hand shape for both is simply a manual hand shape of 'N' next to the head. The female 'niece' has the hand positioned near the lower half of the head near the chin, while the masculine 'nephew' has the hand shape on the higher half of the head, near the temple. In addition, lip shapes also help ease confusion between certain signed numerals and letters, especially differentiating between 'two' and 'V' or 'six' and 'F'.


  • While signing, it is important to maintain eye contact with the person you are talking with. If an interpreter is present, look at the deaf person and not the interpreter.

  • Do not stare or make fun of a deaf person if they are making groaning noises. They are often unaware they are doing so.

  • It is rude to watch a signed conversation without indicating you are knowledgeable in sign language. Not indicating as such is the deaf equivalent of eavesdropping.

  • Do not become offended if a deaf person touches you or asks a lot of personal information. This is simply part of deaf communication.

    • Tapping on someone's shoulder is how a deaf person gets that person's attention for conversation. To get attention from far away, a deaf person will often extend his or her arm out and wave.

    • Personal questions are how the deaf community gets to know one another. Many deaf people grew up going to and living at boarding schools or specialised schools for the deaf. This creates a close knit, family-like society in which everyone is to know all about everyone else.

  • It is extremely rude to walk between two signers without saying, 'excuse me'.

  • Deaf humour and jokes can be rather different from the humour and jokes of the hearing world, such as how they can often be much more subtle or physical. This being so, do not be alarmed if a deaf person bursts out laughing at something you don't quite understand. Odds are, you have missed the joke.

Actually Signing with ASL

First, pick your dominant hand, usually the hand you write with. If you happen to be ambidextrous, pick a hand you are comfortable with and stay with that hand. The dominant hand does the majority of signing. There are one-handed signs which rely simply on the dominant hand, symmetric two-handed signs, where the dominant and non-dominant hand perform the same action, and non-symmetrical two-handed signs where both hands are often performing different actions.

Facial expressions tend to follow the general emotion behind the word. If it is a positive word, like 'yes,' one's eyebrows should be up and the head should be nodding. If it is a negative word, like 'no,' the head should be slightly bowed and shaking with the eyebrows down as though saying, 'ouch!'. The lip shape usually follows the most dominant sound or letter in the word, such as how the signing of the word 'no' has one's mouth pursed as though having just spoken the word 'no'.

In forming questions, there is a slight difference between 'yes/no' questions and 'wh-' questions (who, what, where, why, when). In 'yes/no' questions, the sentence ends with the signer's eyebrows up, the last sign held and the head is slightly tilted forward. In a 'wh-' question, the eyebrows are lowered, the last sign is held and the head is slightly tilted forward.

Some Simple Signs

  • Hello - Raise your eyebrows high up and put your hand as though saluting. Bring the salute hand slightly away from your face.

  • Thank you - This is similar in action to blowing a kiss. Your fingers should point up and the whole hand/arm drops down to chest level.

  • Sorry - Make a fist and rub your chest counterclockwise (if right handed) with the palm of the fist. Eyebrows should be lowered, head should be bowed.

  • Please - Same motion and facial expression as 'sorry,' only with the fist-hand opened.

  • Excuse me - Curl the fingers of your dominant hand like a hook and rub the tips of the curled fingers back and forth across your opened, palm-up, fingers-outward, non-dominant, hand. The stroke of the moving hand should be parallel to the lines created by the fingers of the non-dominant hand. This can also be said by swiping the curled fingers outward along the palm once and then pointing to yourself. This is one of many phrases and words that can be expressed in different ways.

Some Good Websites in Exploring ASL and the Deaf Community


In recent years, deaf people have become considered part of the group called the 'hearing impaired'. Other terms including 'deaf and dumb' and 'deaf mute' have historically been used as well. Truly deaf people4 tend to prefer the term 'deaf', as 'hearing impaired' also includes those with limited hearing. Historically speaking, the deaf have often been treated like children and animals, schools for the deaf predominantly acting as holding pens or vocational schools. Times have since changed and the people of the deaf community are beginning to receive better education and better jobs.

The deaf community has developed a culture of its own and, with it, a sort of cultural pride. They feel that they should be seen in the public light as self-sufficient. With more and more technology, the deaf community can be self-sufficient with sound detectors that trigger vibrating devices or flashing lights, TTYs (telephones that transmit text through operator relay), and communication via the Internet.

More and more people have come to recognise the culture of the deaf community and so are also recognising ASL as a legitimate language. Many universities throughout the United States now allow ASL to serve for foreign language requirements and the popularity of such classes have increased in the last few years. Likewise, museums and libraries such as the Museum of Modern Art and The Museum of Natural History have taken to offering programmes for the deaf as well.

1Not to be confused with the Internet acronym meaning 'age/sex/location'.2Also known as hearing impaired.3Spelling words using the hands.4Those who are completely deaf.

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