Thursday, October 08, 2009

More on names (in ASL)

Someone asked me the other day if I get my "sign name" when I finish my ASL course...the short answer is no. (though maybe I'll get my Indian name, like "signs-with-a-stutter"!)

What is a sign name? A sign name is an abbreviation, usually based around the handshape of your first initial, that deaf people can use to refer to you quickly and perhaps affectionately without having to resort to fingerspelling your entire first and last names.

But for one thing, you don't really need a sign name unless you're spending a lot of time with deaf people, like in a work environment. I'm not, and don't plan to be. My aunt used to work closely with deaf people when she worked at a closed-captioning company; she has a sign name and I'm definitely jealous!

But, another thing, the course is also a basic introduction to deaf culture, and in deaf culture, names are far less important than in hearing culture.

If I met a hearing person and wanted to talk about someone else I thought they might know, I might say, "you know, Bob Smith? from the Village Shul?"
Whereas deaf culture is more direct - blunt, as my teacher put it.
A deaf person would just come right out and say "you know, that fat black man with small, round glasses and a hearing aid?"
You've got to admire that.

We're working on becoming more descriptive - and more blunt! - in the course, and I've been picking up some of that from reading I've done independently. So what I've learned is that fingerspelling is apparently only a final recourse if you're not able to describe someone or something satisfactorily.

For example, if you don't know the word for "cloud," you could ask a deaf person by fingerspelling the word "C-L-O-U-D", but to do so, you're actually leaving ASL for a couple of minutes, interrupting the flow of the conversation with a bunch of random English letters. That's disruptive: ASL is not English and not all deaf people are fully bilingual or comfortable in English.

What you are supposed to do is try very hard first to convey the meaning using gestures, even if you don't know the "official" sign. So you puff up your cheeks, and look up to the sky, and wave your finger around in little cloud shapes until the person figures out what you're asking about and shows you the real sign.

Apparently, it's less disruptive - to a person who thinks in ASL - to start waving your hands randomly in toddler-babble sign language than to resort to spelling it out. Just as when you're describing a person, the name of the thing is always less important than the concept.

This is all very hard; gestures and facial expressions don't come naturally to me... I have worked long and hard perfecting my repertoire of "pleasant neutral" faces, and it's scary how useless they are in a signing context, where facial expression is almost equally as important as handshape and movement. (don't get me started on the "c-s" cheek-shoulder expression to indicate that something is extremely near - it's basically an evil, skull-like half-grimace that is SO hard to do without feeling like a dress-up pirate)

But it continues to be an intriguing journey.

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