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ASL:  Initialization / Initialized Signing (2)
Also see: Initialized signs 1


In a message dated 8/14/2007 7:12:40 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, annsavedbygrace(at) writes:
Hi Bill,
...I have a question.  I understand that initializing words based on English is not really ASL.  But when I read about that, I thought about the signs for 'aunt', 'uncle', 'cousin'... 'family,'  'class' and other words.  These are all initialized.  How can it be alright to initialize some words, but not others?
Just curious,
Ann Cantrell
What is "alright" in a language is a moving target.
The things that are "alright" today, might not be "alright" a year from now.
I have pinned down some of my colleagues and friends and asked them that same question.
I love my colleagues and friends, but I've gotten some pretty lame answers.  One of them answered something to the effect of, "It is okay to use initialization that was naturally developed and in use in the Deaf community prior to the development and spread of the various Signed English systems invented by Hearing people--but it is not okay to use initialization that came about as a result of Hearing people inventing signs."
I had to stare at his face for a moment to make sure he wasn't kidding me.  He wasn't. 
So, if you are looking for a logical reason for why "certain signs" can be initialized and others can't -- I doubt you will find much agreement.  If you ask experts about it, most of them will just squirm a bit and tell you that's the way it is or they will come up with some "strange reason."
The real reason is simply the "law of consensus."  It is a form of evolution.  Mutations are introduced into a language.  Such mutations will tend to be perceived as strange by the old-timers.  If the mutation is compellingly beneficial it will gain a foothold and start building acceptance within the community.  After enough of the old-timers die off, the new members of the community (who grew up with the beneficial mutation) will simply embrace it as natural. Eventually a consensus will develop that the new sign (mutation) is "okay."
If a mutation is not compellingly beneficial, it will die off. For example, for a very, very brief time back in the early 1990's the term "text telephone" was introduced into the language.  The sign was a double T (slightly reformed while moved an inch or two to the side).  This sign was not beneficial.  We already had a sign for a text telephone:  TTY.  Trying to shorten the sign to TT didn't work because it was easily confused with the sign for "bathroom/toilet." 
So, where does that leave you as a second-language learner trying to pick up ASL?  How do you know which signs are okay to initialize and which ones are not?
1.  Hang out with members of the Deaf community.  Make a list of any initialized signs that show up on the hands of many Deaf people.
2.  Review the literature:  Get a stack of 10 ASL dictionaries or textbooks.  Make sure they say ASL in the title or on the cover -- not just "sign" or "sign language" or "signing."  Look up your list of initialized signs and see if there is a consensus in the literature. 
3.  Check the online ASL dictionaries to see if they agree with the textbooks.
4.  Take a few ASL classes from a variety of instructors. For example try to take two ASL courses at the same time from two different instructors.   Each time you see an instructor use or teach an initialized sign--make a note of it and then ask the OTHER teacher what he or she thinks of that sign (no need to mention where you learned the sign--grin).
Dr. V

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