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Colonization via Euphemization:
The intrusion of Hearing values onto Deaf language
By William G. Vicars, EdD
"During colonization, colonizers usually imposed their language onto the peoples they colonized, forbidding natives to speak their mother tongues. In some cases colonizers systematically prohibited native languages."
(Source: Shakib, M. (July 30, 2011) "The position of language in development of colonization" Journal of Languages and Culture, Vol.2 (7), pp. 117-123)
I don't like using the sign EVAPORATE to mean adopt.
I don't like signing EVAPORATE-PARENTS to mean adoptive parents -- because that doesn't feel right.
So let's come up with some other sign than EVAPORATE-PARENTS.
I don't like the sign traditionally used to mean STEP-PARENTS because that sign is the same sign for SECOND-HAND, as in a "used car."
It doesn't feel right to me to sign USED-PARENTS.
So let's come up with some other sign than USED-PARENTS.
But wait--there's that version of the sign for PARENTS that is done on the cheekbone. That won't work because it obviously means CHEEKBONE-PARENTS.
Sarcasm aside: Recommendation: Stop focusing on the ENGLISH labels of ASL signed concepts. ASL is not English.
No skilled / qualified interpreter would voice: "false parents" when a Deaf signer signs FOSTER-PARENTS. Why not? Because we are not signing FALSE-PARENTS -- we are signing FOSTER-PARENTS. How do skilled interpreters know to voice "foster parents" and that Deaf aren't signing FAKE-PARENTS? Because skilled interpreters know the language and know that the context influences the meaning. The meaning isn't determined by the inaccurate application of an English label for an ASL concept.
Virtually every socially-active Deaf native or highly skilled signer over the age of 30 recognizes the traditional FOSTER-PARENT sign. Why? Because that was the sign that was commonly used for many, many years. It is the sign we grew up with.
The sign "FOSTER-PARENT" has been traditionally used in the Deaf community without negativity. In other words -- that was just the sign. It was not (and should not be) signed with some sort of negative facial expression.
In ASL we have a sign for "real, true, actual, indeed" -- it is an index finger moving forward from the mouth.
In ASL we have a sign for not-real, not-true, not-actual and it is an index finger moving sideways in front of the mouth / nose area.
The sign "upright index finger moves past the mouth/nose area" is not just one or two English words -- it is a multiple meaning ASL concept with a variety of interpretations.
In the real world "foster parents" are not the "actual" birth parents of a child.
That is the blunt truth. You know, blunt as in Deaf blunt?!?
Using blunt but efficient phrases is part of Deaf culture.
The push to change away from the traditional approach to signing FOSTER-PARENTS is possibly or in some part due to second-language Hearing-culture-based learners (of ASL) fixating on the overly brief label they saw in their ASL dictionaries and text-books stating "false" or "fake." Authors often fail to include other meanings such as "not actual" and/or "foster."
We'd better spell out in E N G L I S H every single concept in ASL from now on so that there is no possible way ASL will offend anyone who prefers English. Whoops, can't sign CANCER any more using the gobble up sign because we don't want to remind anyone that cancer is a devastating, terrible condition. Can't sign COCHLEAR-IMPLANT using the "implant behind the ear" sign because that looks so, so...graphic!
Then there are those who have been telling Deaf people that we can't sign ABORTION any more and need to spell it – because, you know.
Deaf culture: Deaf blunt. Sign what you mean because, well, it looks like that in real life.
Hearing culture: Use euphemisms. Be ambiguous (unclear) so as to not cause discomfort.
Do you see the danger in telling Deaf that it is not appropriate to use traditional ASL signs (based on overly narrow interpretations of those signs) and we must instead spell concepts in English so as to be polite?
Perhaps a more culturally appropriate approach would be for English-centric people to stop inaccurately claiming that people are signing FAKE parents when using the non-inflected (signed with a neutral face) combination of FOSTER + PARENT (using the "finger moves sideways in front of the mouth / nose" sign). The non-inflected version of that sign doesn't mean FAKE parents. It doesn't mean FALSE parents. The facial expression is different. The context is different. The sign simply means the equivalent of the English phrase "foster parents."
Facial expressions matter. Context matters. ASL is highly context-based. This allows ASL to be efficient and effective.
Euphemization might make non-culturally-Deaf people feel better but it is annoying to culturally-Deaf traditional ASL signers.
English-centric individuals should be careful to avoid making ASL less efficient by engaging in colonization of ASL via euphemization (using ambiguous phraseology). Stop seeking to replace traditional ways of Deaf signing with the fingerspelling of English words for your own emotional comfort. Instead, embrace the fact that many signs have multiple different meanings.
Language changes. My advice next week might be different but my current advice to ASL educators, interpreters, students, or linguists:
1. Spell "foster" when signing to an unknown or mixed audience.
(Am I happy about that approach? My "feelings" don't matter in this situation. For my views, see my article "Colonization Via Euphemization."
The community decides. I don't get to decide what does and doesn't become standard in ASL. "You" don't either. After a new norm has been established then that is the new norm. At that point what you get to decide is whether you want your signing to be understood by the widest possible audience. If so, then sign using the most commonly recognized form of a sign. If you want to evangelize that is your choice but there is a tradeoff in recognition and an increased potential for misunderstandings.)
2. Develop the skill of recognizing multiple versions of FOSTER-PARENTS including but not limited to the use of signs typically glossed as FALSE, SHORT-(duration), and TAKE-CARE-OF.
3. If you are an interpreter and your Deaf client uses a particular sign for "FOSTER" in the concept of "foster-parents" then strive to use that sign for the duration of the interpreting assignment.
4. If asked what the sign for "foster" is or should be -- defer to the opinions of culturally-Deaf signers who use sign-language as their primary mode of face-to-face daily communication.
5. Embrace the idea that signs mean what the Deaf Community decides they mean -- not what authors label the signs as in dictionaries and textbooks.
6. If a Hearing person or fellow interpreter tells you they don't like to sign FALSE-PARENT to mean "foster parent" -- consider the situation, your role, and/or your relationship -- then if appropriate you may choose to engage them in a discussion in which you point out that if we get beyond the knee-jerk level and analyze the signs linguistically -- ASL doesn't sign FALSE to mean foster parent. Facial expressions and context matter. Basing the interpretation of a sign on anything less than the full set of parameters* and pragmatics** of a sign is inappropriate.
* The full set of parameters needs to include facial expressions (non-manual markers) in addition to such things as handshape, location, orientation, and movement.
** Pragmatics is the study of how context contributes to meaning.
Then there is how nearly every time someone forms a triangle with their thumbs and index fingers -- all of the shallow thinkers fall all over themselves rushing to publicly gasp that "On no! You are signing v_gina!"
LOL, no, actually the person is signing "triangle"-with the thumb and index fingers. The sign V_GINA is a bit more elongated than TRIANGLE. The sign V_GINA is also typically oriented forward and down at an angle in its non-inflected form -- although, sure, it has an a version that points upward but then the location is different (more near the, ahem, mouth).
The point being -- if you want to inform native or near-native skilled signers that you are a beginning-level signer (or that you just simply haven't thought things through) go ahead and gasp and make a fuss every time someone screws up the sign VERY and tell them that they are signing F_RNICATE -- because everyone knows that people stand on their heads to fornicate.
p.s. If the above notes bother your sensibilities -- you might find it shocking to learn that Deaf people have intimate lives too.
p.p.s. Don't email me or contact me asking me to teach you intimate signs. Instead put in the hard work to learn enough ASL to allow you to meet Deaf people and form authentic, deep relationships -- at which point you will have access to all sorts of signs.
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