This Is How New Words Enter the Vernacular of ASL

Selfie, photobomb and five-second rule all have signs in progress


Languages change—they must. For example, even stickler grammarians have to admit that "impact" has gained popularity as a verb (even if it’s still annoying to some). The Oxford Dictionaries are always adding words: duckface, lolcat and five-second rule made it in December. As evidenced by that list, the internet is a cauldron of word evolution. And like all other languages, American Sign Language has to incorporate the phrases and terms that spring from it.

A story at Hopes&Fears explores exactly how ASL is incorporating all these internet-y words. Turns out, change happens pretty much like it does in any other language: New signs crop up and are shared and debated; some catch on. Eventually, dictionaries reflect the language change. The difference is that ASL doesn’t have one official dictionary, so the whole process is a little more organic.

Bill Vicars, who is hard of hearing and culturally Deaf, owns a company called Lifeprint that offers an ASL dictionary online. (There is a host of resources online to share signs.) He told Hopes&Fears:

First, I do a ‘literature review.’ I compare numerous respected sign language dictionaries and textbooks to see how the sign is demonstrated in those dictionaries. Occasionally, the dictionaries conflict with each other but eventually a dominant sign tends to emerge. After doing a thorough review of the literature it is time to interview a cross section of Deaf adults who have extensive experience signing… I make it a goal to ask a minimum of ten advanced Deaf signers how ‘they’ do it. The next stage of investigating a sign is to consider how the sign is done in other locations and decide which version is more widely used… The last stage is to post the sign online to my website where it is exposed to the scrutiny of thousands of individuals - many of whom then email me and tell me their version is better.

But not everyone in the Deaf community uses Lifeprint. ASL artist, actor and educator Douglas Ridloff learns new signs through different means. "We see various signs until one emerges as the agreed upon sign by a collaboration of the community," he explains. But still, it requires discussion until one sign emerges as the best. Sometimes consensus takes a while. 

Ridloff and one of his students, 12-year old Tully Stelzer, showed Hopes&Fears the signs they use for some of the new words. The list includes duckface, emoji and screencap. Both Tully and Ridloff have different signs they use, but the similarities are easy to pick out.

For example, their signs for "selfie" are rather intuitive. In the discussion, Doug tells Tully: 

My sign for selfie was a little bit different than yours. I did it by pushing the button on the camera, but our concepts are almost the same. It felt easy because it's almost like following common sense of what we do organically.

Once you've seen the sign for selfie, it's easy—even if you're not familiar with ASL— to catch"Mary" use a similar sign in this YouTube video as she tells the story of a photographer who leaned close to a squirrel for selfie, only to be jumped by the animal.

But other signs are still being sorted out. Doug wrote to Hopes&Fears that after showing his sign for "photobomb" to other members of the Deaf community:

It was deemed awkward because 'photobomb' is technically an action with several different possibilities," he wrote. "ASL is non-linear — a sign can incorporate several dimensions — temporal, spatial and numeral. For example, if a person is photobombing a crowd of people, this would require a different sign as opposed to a person photobombing another individual. This person also could photobomb within the foreground or in the background, which again would impact how the sign is executed. This also brings to question who the subject is — the person being photobombed, the photobomber or the photographer. The other challenge with the sign I presented is the fact that it involves too many moving parts at the same time, a violation of the grammatical rules of ASL. This is an example of how the democratic Deaf community breathes life into signs. My point is this: the sign I presented during the shoot at Hopes&Fears is only the beginning of a dialogue of an actual sign. In time, there will be a wholly accepted sign for the word photobomb.

Check out the full article to see signs themselves.

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