The information below is a collection of miscellaneous
questions people have asked me. Sometimes I have time to answer this
type of question, sometimes I don't. I love you all, but there is only
so much time in the day...
In a message dated 12/31/2002 1:19:55 AM Central
Standard Time, a student writes:
Perhaps you can give me an idea regarding an ASL-English dictionary.
Whenever I start learning a new language, I begin by searching for a
good dictionary going both ways (Russian-English, English-Russian, for
example). What puzzles me about ASL is that most dictionaries on the
market are English-ASL. The only one I've been able to find which is
ASL-English is "The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary" by
Richard A. Tennant and Marianne G. Brown. Only it's quite small, 1,600
signs and, in my opinion, they could've done better job indexing the
signs. Do you know whether there are other dictionaries on the market
which are ASL-English?
I realize that it's not easy to index signs, but still, whenever people
learn a language they need some reference to look up unknown words
(signs in this case), so I'm sure other people have similar questions.
I know the dictionary you are talking about. I'm looking at
an ad for it right here in the Gallaudet University Press catalog. The
ad indicates "This unique dictionary can help..."
Notice the word "unique" in the description? They aren't kidding.
There really isn't much out there regarding going from ASL to English
(instead of the other way around)...YET.
One place to look though would be "gesture recognition systems."
There are a number of technology-based projects going on at universities and
elsewhere that are developing methods of allowing computers to recognize and
Such programs have many thousands of ASL signs in their database.
Eventually they will be commercially available. Until then, you
might want to do a few Internet searches to see if you can track down who is
doing the work and if any of it is available for public inspection.
Regarding "The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary," you
mentioned that you felt, " they could've done better job indexing the
signs." What would you suggest by way of improvements?
In a message dated 1/3/2003 1:55:02 PM Central Standard Time, Ruth.Bird@sympatico.ca
First, I really enjoy your tapes, they are a great way for me to learn.
Worth every cent :)
Just a quickie question, how would you sign, in ASL, the following sentence.
Would you actually use the sign for "have" in this concept, or would you
sign this sentence totally different then its English structure.
The sentence: "We have come to school."
It is not really past tense, and it is not really present tense, so what is
it in ASL :),
Thanks for your help,
I'd sign, "WE COME SCHOOL." While nodding my head affirmatively.
Or if I want to point out that we are officially here at school, I'd
sign, "WE COME SCHOOL FINISH!"
That is a "weird" sentence. A more likely construct would be: "We have come
to a decision."
Which I would sign, "WE DECIDE FINISH."
If I wanted to sign the sentence, "We have come to school so we can improve
ourselves." I would sign, "WE COME HERE WHY?-(rhetorical) IMPROVE
SELF-(horizontal sweeping motion.)
A student asked me about how to sign a concept that didn't exist. In
my reply I talked about how signs come into existence and evolve. Here
is part of that conversation:
I saw this happen when a group of graduate
level deaf students were
discussing an article in which the word "helmet" was being used frequently.
No-one in the group had an established sign for helmet. Note, these were
skilled signers who had no problem whatsoever communicating the concept of
"helmet" -- but there was simply no standard sign used by everyone.
Over the course of an hour I watched the sign evolve. At first most
were using spread-slightly-curved 5-handshapes represent a helmet (with a
motion that looked as if you were sliding a helmet onto your head. Near
end of the conversation, everyone was signing helmet by using "bent-L"
In a message dated 1/5/2003 11:41:57 PM Central Standard Time, email@example.com
Since your last email I thought about your question regarding improvement of
Handshape Dictionary, learned more about ASL, and most important, read
carefully the intro to the dictionary where they explain how they organize
signs. And now I see that they have actually done a very good job. And as
for the question of why this dictionary is out of print (and therefore I
assume not used by many people studying ASL) is because it's a very
technical dictionary. You cannot just open it and use it like most
ASL-English dictionary. (That's what I did and so jumped into conclusion
that it could be improved!) I guess the problem is that it's very tricky to
index visual pictures in terms of an alphabet of a hearing language, that's
why, to explain fully how they indexed it, they had to write a long and
quite complicated, in my opinion, explanation in the introduction. And
probably not many students of ASL have enough patience or insentive to do
all that work to just learn how to use a dictionary. (from my experience of
learning foreign languages in college I was surprised to see that most
American folks are quite cold and unchallenged in learning other languages)
What I still cannot figure out is how big is ASL. Usually, when I'm
seriously learning a language, I try to buy the best dictionary that I can
find. And one of the important factors is how many words it has. For
example, my English-Russian dictionary is about 50,000 words,
Russian-English is about the same. (did I tell you that I am from Russia?
And the first language I learned was English). Now with ASL things are very
different. Based on your advice and my "investigation" it looks like the
best ASL-English dictionary is Random House ASL which has ~5,600 signs. That
seems so little! Of course, I haven't been learning ASL long enough to know
it's grammar well, but I see already that many ASL verbs are just a
variation of the same noun, and that signs like drink and juice are also
similar. So, I don't expect ASL to have as many words as hearing languages,
but at least 15,000 or 10,000? Well, I guess I got carried away. It's really
not that important, and I already decided to buy that Random House
dictionary, but it's still a very interesting topic and you may want to
discuss it on your site or tell me where I can read about that (a book or a
link on the Internet)
Thanks for your email that made me reconsider my words,
Somewhere packed away I have a dictionary of 10,000 ASL signs that I bought
way back in 1986 from the Oregon School for the Deaf. (Salem) They had
"self-produced" it. It is two large binders with many hundreds of pages. It
contains quite a bit of what might arguably be termed "SEE." But there is no
doubting that it also contains an awesome amount and variety of ASL
vocabulary that was, is, and continues to be used at that school.
You ask a great question..."How many ASL signs are there?"
That is somewhat like asking, how many colors are there on an artists
palette. Obviously there is no end to the number of colors he can produce
because he can mix and match to create.
In a message dated 1/11/2003 12:53:10 PM Central Standard Time,
Hi there, I am a student of Wolverhampton University England.
I am training to become an interpreter and currently struggling with a
My specific question is;
Do ASL signers maintain a neutral mouth-pattern when indexing (pointing) a
ie. if a person or thing has been established, by whatever method and then
referred back to, do people tend to mouth that name, or he or she or it? or
just keep their mouth "neutral?"
A quick response would be extremely useful!!!
Many thanks, in anticipation,
Great question. Someday I'll have to videotape some
conversations and check for mouth movements during indexing.
I remember a well known ASL expert mentioning at a recent conference that
she felt there needed to be more research done on the "taboo" topic of
mouthing and ASL.
My response is it happens in varying degrees according to the inclination of
the individual communicator. If a person developed his speech to the point
where it is a familiar second mode of communication, he will tend to mouth
certain concepts in ASL. Of course, there are many deaf who hardly move
their mouths if at all.
I know I've seen skilled ASL communicators mouthing the "o" of the word
"YOU." I've also seen the "m" of the word "HIM."
But to call that a linguistic principle would be premature. To say that it
happens and is a real phenomenon would be accurate. To say that it is or is
not appropriate according to some "rule" without having done quite a bit of
experimentation would be difficult to back up.
With that in mind, my opinion is that the mouth is, for the most part,
neutral when doing a simple index of a pre-established pronoun.
In a message dated
2/6/2003 1:55:59 PM Central Standard Time, firstname.lastname@example.org writes:
Recently I found your web page and I am really enjoying the information.
Your method of teaching is so clear. I find most ASL instructors don't mind
giving the rules of ASL grammar, but they are hesitant to give good
examples. I appreciate how extensively you answer questions.
I have two questions:
1) I notice that some of your information is from the year 2001, yet your
web page is scrolling messages that indicate the site is under construction.
Are you currently having your site updated, and when do you think more
information will be available?
2) I have an English sentence that I am having trouble changing into ASL.
The sentence is: Sometimes people are not treated fairly.
I can't find a sign for the word "treat". The best I could do is sign:
SOMETIMES PEOPLE (signed on my left) - OTHER PEOPLE (signed on my right)
DISCRIMINATE (toward left) - NOT FAIR.
I'm sure there is a better way. Maybe you could make a suggestion.
Thank you for your time.
Brenna L. Thomas
Well, as I'm sure you know, there are a number of ways to interpret this
The word "treat" is one of those English concepts that can mean many
different things and therefore has many different interpretations. For
example my kids like treats (SWEET, CANDY, COOKIE, CAKE).
Now, your sentence "Sometimes people are not treated fairly" seems hard
because it is using a passive construction. Sort of like the sentence, "He
was shot." Who shot him? You have to establish who is doing the shooting.
For example, you could sign "MAN, INDEX-left, SOMEONE-right (bodyshift
One way to interpret "Sometimes people are not treated fairly" would be to
PEOPLE ASSOCIATE-(circular sweep inclusive) EQUAL, EQUAL-(reposition)
EQUAL-(reposition) ALWAYS? NOT!
That ASL construct would indicate that people do not always interact fairly
with each other.
But if you by "not treated fairly" you mean a bunch of things like: taken
advantage of, discriminated against, prevented from progressing, given less
opportunity...etc. Then you will need to either sign all of that...or use
the rest of the discourse to make it clear. You don't just walk up to
another person and start signing about human rights issues...there must be a
context. To interpret a sentence like that out of context would require
several minutes of signing. You could have ten different interpretations and
any one of them would be more or less correct depending on the context.
Regarding you question about the updating of my site: It is an ongoing
process. Almost everyday I add some tidbit or other to it. Some
updates are more extensive than others.
In a message dated 4/3/2003 2:46:03 PM Central Standard Time,
Hello Dr. Vicars,
I have enjoyed looking through ASL University. I am a
sign language terp in educational setting using SEE, but I
am learning ASL.
We have been watching a Mark Mitchum tape and have seen a
sign with which we are not familiar.
He starts with flat palms at mouth, palms in similar to
the sign for grateful then the two hands come down , palms
up, thumbs on little fingers. as the hands move apart the
thumbs move along fingers ending in the a handshape...like
the sign for smooth or dirt.
The lyrics are about making promises that are broken. I
don't have a dictionary that shows the handshapes and I
can't find anything on-line.
The other sign he uses is both hands are s shapes palms
out, right hand hits the back of left hand and the left
hand opens to a five and both hands move forward.
any help would be appreciated...Thank you so much.
Hmmm, if I had to take a wild guess I'd reckon he is signing a version of THANK YOU and then signs DISSOLVE.
That other sign probably is a version of BLESS.
I suggest you call him. You can call 817-375-8850 and ask for a
direct number and then use a relay service. Or email him at email@example.com
and ask him what he is signing.
In a message dated
5/25/2003 12:32:20 AM Central Daylight Time, firstname.lastname@example.org writes:
I have a question: Have you ever heard of people who are not deaf but who
have instead severe speech impairments that prevent them from articulate
speech but their principal communication tool is sign? Does /can the deaf
include them in the signing community?
I am just curious about that. I recently saw a film entitled 'Mute Witness'
where the principal character, a woman, could hear but not speak and was a
fluent signer. The movie was quite good and sparked my interest in mute
signing people. Can't find anything much about them on the web and I
wondered if you or anyone in the deaf community knew of these people.
Thanks for any info and I am working on learning ASL. Don't know anybody who
uses it but am learning something about it.
Yes, I have heard of and have met people with impaired speech who have
integrated themselves into the Deaf Community.
I've done some looking, and you are right...there isn't much out there.
Let me add my small contribution to your research. When you get 500 or so
words on the topic, perhaps you would care to type it up as a paper and
submit it to the Library at lifeprint.com?
Here are some links and info:
One flew over the cuckoos nest (1975) featured a Deaf, speech impaired
Native American who uses ASL. The Milos Forman tragi-comedy starred Jack
The Piano (1993) tells the story of a speech impaired sign language user who
travels to New Zealand. The film starred Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel.
"6 in 100 children will at some stage have a speech, language or
NHS Centre for Reviews and Dissemination: Pre-school hearing, speech,
language and vision screening (Effective Health Care Volume 4 No 2, 1998)
At least 1 in 500 children experiences severe, long-term difficulties.
David Hall, Health for all Children (1996)"
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