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ASL:  Initialization / Initialized Signing

Initialization is the process of using the ASL fingerspelled letter that represents the first letter of an English word as the handshape for a sign.

For example, the signs CLASS and FAMILY are initialized signs.


Warning:  Overuse of initialization is frowned upon by the Deaf Community.  While it is true that quite a few initialized signs have found their way into general usage in the Deaf community--you would do well to use initialization as little as possible if you are trying to develop your ASL skills. 

Initialization (using the first letter of the English word for a sign as the handshape for the sign) has become associated with "Signed English" in the minds of many ASL teachers and aficionados (people who are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about an activity or subject) eschew (deliberately avoid using) initialization.  That means they go out of their way to NOT use "letters" as the handshapes for their signing.  

Also see: "BOOK REVIEW 7"

In a message dated 1/20/2014 8:29:28 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, writes:
Hi Bill -
I am working on a project about initialized signs and I will give a presentation on this issue at Deaf Studies Today! Conference. My title would be Initialized Signs: Analysis of Community Acceptance and Rejection.

Curious .... The list of initialized signs on your website.... How do you determine those initialized signs to be acceptable and are being listed? How do you determine that some other initialized signs seem "unacceptable" and you may not want to include them on the list?
I am aware that most of times people usually explain that "these look or feel right" and "those do not look or do not feel right". Mostly based on the gut feeling. That is Ok. I wonder if you have any reasons for listing those specific initialized signs you chose for the website.



Here are some reasons for you:

1. Historical Prevalence:  If a sign has a long history of initialization (several generations of usage) it is more likely to be accepted as an ASL sign. For example: FAMILY  [Update:
Sure, I've seen an "older" non-initialized sign for family.  I remember my "senior citizen" friend Ralph signing it. He also did an interesting version of the sign for "DOLLAR" by drawing a circle on his non-dominant palm with his index finger.  Yes, there are initialized signs that have "always" (as far as we can tell) been initialized. But that is not my point.  My point about the initialized sign for FAMILY is that it is several generations old now.  Thus it has been accepted into mainstream usage. ]

2.  Lack of existing/alternate ASL form.  If a concept has no existing or alternate non-initialized sign an initialized sign is more likely to be accepted as an ASL sign.  For example "AUNT."  There is no non-initialized specific sign that means "aunt" in ASL.  The sign "AUNT" is well accepted in ASL.  An example of a sign that is increasingly "not" accepted in ASL due to having a non-initialized competing ASL version is the initialized sign for SINGLE.  Instead people can sign SINGLE using a "1" handshape (at the corners of the mouth) or use the version of SINGLE that means "alone / someone / something." Thus "SINGLE" has not one but two competing ASL non-initialized versions.  The initialized signs YELLOW and BLUE do not have common ASL non-initialized versions and thus are well accepted.  There is a very common non-initialized sign for RED and so the initialized sign for RED is not acceptable.

3.  High utility and economy of movement:  If a concept is used frequently and the initialized version of the sign for that concept is able to be produced using less effort than the non-initialized version of the sign then it is likely that the initialized sign will eventually gain acceptance as an ASL sign. For example, the initialized signs for BREAKFAST / LUNCH / DINNER are very common in the Deaf world.  Part of the reason for this is that doing a one-handed initialized version of "BREAKFAST" is easier and generally faster than doing the two-handed compound sign "EAT-MORNING."

4.  Zeitgeist and Social Currency:  Sometimes a sign or a version of a sign becomes popular simply because it is marketed and used by leaders or celebrities.  For example, the non-initialized version of SYSTEM that is done with a "Y" hand is neither more utilitarian nor more economical than the initialized sign for SYSTEM.  However, using the "Y" hand provides a form of self-branding and a way to declare one's membership in the "in" group.  The sign for "language" traditionally was initialized but there are those who advocate doing the LANGUAGE sign with "F" hands (even though it makes the sign less clear for bilingual ASL/English users) as a way of remaining connected to the historical roots of this sign.

5.  Political Correctness / Language Borrowing:  If a concept is strongly associated with another culture and the sign language associated with that culture uses a competing non-initialized sign there is a likelihood of that sign being adopted into the lexicon of ASL and replacing the former ASL sign.  For example: JAPAN.  Consdier which adoption rate is higher: the "new" (borrowed) sign for JAPAN or the "new" (borrowed) sign for CHINA?  The traditional ASL sign for CHINA is/was done as a non-initialized sign with an "INDEX"-finger whereas the legacy ASL sign for JAPAN was done as an initialized sign. Preliminary interviewing seems to indicate that people are slightly slower to adopt the new sign for CHINA than the new sign for JAPAN. (Some of this may be the proximity of the older sign for CHINA and the location of the sign for FOOD and the fact that "Chinese food" is somewhat more common (in America) than "Japanese food." Initialized-ASL signs are more vulnerable to replacement via language borrowing than non-initialized signs.

Good luck.
-- Dr. Bill

Future development:

6. Phonesthesia Differentiation
7. Mouth Morpheme Linkage
8. Iconicity Preference (WHALE)
9. Same sentence (or discourse) homonym distinctions
10. Semantic range (second usage) distinction
11. Stigmatization avoidance
[Also, see below for "DECIDE" discussion.]

A discussion regarding the initialized version of the initialized sign for SINGLE.  A teacher of the Deaf noticed an initialized sign for "single" in one of the quizzes at

She emailed the following:

<<OH...."single"...with an "s" and not the first finger on each side of the mouth.  I see....that was a very English-type sign. I'm surprised you signed it that way. Hmm. Interesting. Is that how everyone is signing it now in ASL? Should I change that? I don't want to be left out of the loop. :)
Smile!! I showed my kids your signs and they thought it was so neat to be able to pull that up on the web. They also thought it was neat that I knew you. My kids are 6-8th grade and vary in ability levels from 1st-5th grade in reading levels. They all enjoy being able to see adult signers. I enjoyed being able to pull up your site in class. Thanks for the info!! Hope all is going well. 
Michelle __________
Deaf Ed Teacher>>

(Please know that I think the world of you and that any defensive tone in this letter is just my natural inclination to consider both sides of ANYTHING. Such being the case, I'm not responding to you but rather to the people that think "one way is the right way" -- which, strangely enough, usually happens to be their way. )

Now, ...on with the discussion...

It is a fact that I include "variations" in my website.  I strive to put the most commonly used ASL signs at the top of pages and the lesser used variations lower down.  Occasionally I include a "less common" variation on a quiz to make sure my students are actually studying deeply instead of superficially.

If a person were to have gone through the lessons starting with number 1 and working forward, they would get to lesson two which contained the vocabulary word "single." Then they'd go to the "single" page, and see the variations.

Please DO go to the page so you can see what I'm talking about:

It takes a while to load because of the graphics, but you will notice that I also show the "index" finger version of the sign. You asked if that is how "everyone is signing it in ASL now?" 

I've yet to see "everyone" sign ANYTHING the same. 

By including some of the lesser known variations of signs in my quizzes it helps make sure my students are thoroughly familiar with a wide range of sign choices.  I expect my online students to RECOGNIZE common variations.  I encourage them to USE the regionally appropriate variations.

You said that the "S" version of "single" is an "English type" sign.

I know what you mean.  It is common to label any "initialized sign" as "signed English."  But for your consideration I would suggest that perhaps, "S"ingle is no more "English" than the signs Aunt and Uncle are "English" signs.  [This is not common opinion though and you should not mention the idea in polite company.]

There are many, many legitimate, widely used ASL signs that are initialized. Here are a few for example: Congress, yellow, workshop, Monday, ready, semester, nurse, project, patient/hospital, law, governor, elevator...and my favorite: "family." 

No one in their right mind, (but some in a wrong mind) would be willing to dispute that "family" is a bona fide ASL sign used by hundreds of thousands of culturally Deaf people on a regular basis.

But, since initialization is so "obvious" it is easy to label (or as I'm suggesting is the case: mislabel). 

ASL is a living language though, and as such is constantly changing and incorporating new lexicon (vocabulary).

Now, back to the "single" sign--check out: 

Costello, E., & Lenderman, L. (1994). Random House American sign language dictionary (1st ed ed.). New York: Random House. 

You will notice that Elaine lists the side to side mini-sweeping motion version of single as the main version. She lists the initialized version as an "alternate sign." And she doesn't even mention the "index finger to the sides of the mouth" version that you suggested. 

Does that "prove" the initialized version of SINGLE is "ASL?" 

A man or woman convinced against his or her will, is a disbeliever still.

I could even jump on the other side of the fence and point out that the sign SINGLE has a non-initialized version that works well, (the index finger to the sides of the mouth) but the sign AUNT doesn't, therefore "SINGLE"-(initialized) is not as legitimate of an ASL sign as is AUNT. But then again, I could sign, "MY DAD, HIS SISTER" to mean AUNT though. Obviously, initialized signs for words like "I" and "WE" are not necessary in ASL. (Unless, perhaps, if you were using ASL to discuss English.)

But, suffice to say, Elaine (the above named author/expert) --in addition to her own lifetime worth of expertise gained from interacting with thousands of Deaf people--employed the knowledge and expertise of over 80 "sign informants," (most of whom are Deaf) to ensure the appropriateness of the content of that dictionary. So, if one or two, (or 10 or 20) people choose to debate the issue, I suggest they go debate it with Dr. Costello and her team of 80 sign informants.

My suggestion is for you to teach your students whatever version of any particular sign is commonly used by native Deaf adults in YOUR region, and then as an ASL expert use your judgment as to which variations appear in your region often enough to warrant their inclusion in your class.

Best wishes, your friend,

Dr. Bill

Katie Beaman & Bill Vicars
April 22, 2003, updated January, 2014

Borrowed Language:

            It is a well known fact that languages borrow from other languages they come in contact with.  English uses words like guru (from Hindi) and taco (from Spanish).  This is a natural phenomenon that cannot be escaped.

            American Sign Language (ASL) also borrows from other languages.  “Loan signs” are signs that are borrowed from other countries.  Much of ASL is actually French Sign Language, introduced to American Deaf through Laurent Clerc. 

            Many ASL signs use “initialization” as a way to help clarify the meaning of the sign.  Sometimes initialized signs are created for a sign system, but quite a few signs use the first letter (derived from English) to show a more precise meaning.  (For example, many colors in ASL like blue, green, and yellow are signed using the first letter of the English word.)

            Are the signs for "blue, green, and yellow" actually "Signed English" and not ASL?  Of course not!  Rather these are well accepted ASL signs that occur frequently in the Deaf community.  Initialization of some American Sign Language signs is the result of the natural linguistic process of "borrowing" and that process is unlikely to end any time soon (in any language).

            However, ASL-as-a-second-language learners and well-meaning Educators of the Deaf would be well advised to avoid attempting to promote or hurry along the "borrowing" process since unnecessary initialization of signs is frowned upon in the Deaf Community and is considered to be a characteristic of Signed-English and not of ASL.

In a message dated 2/17/2010 11:40:31 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, Randy.Reynolds@ writes:
I see you recommend the sign for doctor with the letter D tapped on the wrist. I was using that in my area but everyone around here insists that it is signed English. Could this be a regional thing? Just curious.

[Update: Actually, these days, I recommend my students use the "bent-hand" version of" DOCTOR and recognize both versions.]

Uh huh. And an "M" for "medic" is less English how? 
No need to answer that.  Read below.

I've seen the argument presented dozens of ways. 
But really, it is not a regional thing -- it is an "anti-English" backlash/rebellion/independence thing.
It is comparable to the Gay Community reclaiming the word "queer" and wearing it on their shirts and using it in their organization names.

Avoiding initialization is a way of proclaiming "I'm Deaf and proud and you (and your English) don't own me."

It is zeitgeist (the spirit of the day) to reclaim any "initialized sign" that could (reasonably) be done without an initial. 

This is often attempted or accomplished by labeling commonly initialized words as Signed English -- thus instantly stigmatizing the initialized word.

I suggest to you though that there is a difference between Signed English and "over initialization."

There's a fellow I know who feels initializations are okay but only if they were introduced before the 1960's.
Instead of signing "OFFICE" he signs "WORK BOX-(room)."  I personally think that is extreme.  [Update: Personally? I like to spell O-F-F-I-C-E. It rolls off the fingers very nicely!]

Some of the favorite targets for "de-initialization" are the signs "doctor, breakfast, lunch, dinner, system, vocabulary, and free."  For example you will see people (particularly ASL instructors) signing "eat night" instead of DINNER (with a "D" hand). 

To try to put some perspective on this I started asking such people how they do various commonly initialized signs. (See the list of signs below.)
After a bit it becomes very obvious (to them) that they use PLENTY of initialized signs and that initialized signs are entrenched in ASL.  So the question becomes, "What qualifies BLUE to be ASL but DOCTOR (with a D) is relegated to Signed English?"

No, seriously ask your friends and contacts for a list of characteristics of why it is okay to sign "W" on the chin for "water" but not a "D" on the wrist for "doctor."

The answer generally proffered is: "We already have a sign for 'doctor' whereas we have no good alternative sign for 'blue.'"
But that fails to answer the question why "BLUE" isn't English and "DOCTOR" is.

The "D" version of "doctor" maps to a contemporary version of the English word doctor.  The "bent hand" version of "doctor" started as an "M" which maps to "medic" which is an older way (in English) of expressing the concept of doctor. 

Already having a sign for doctor (based on medic) doesn't automatically mean that the initialized sign for doctor is English.  What it means is that you now have two signs for doctor, one of which looks less like English than the other one and since English is the "got cooties" of the Deaf world these days you'll find many ASL instructors throwing stones at the sign that looks more like English. 

Here's the funny thing.  If you ask a group of ASL Instructors "how do you sign doctor?" They will generally show you the "bent hand" version and/or show you both versions and then "educate you" that the "bent-hand" version is "more" ASL.

Then if you go to a Deaf community event and ask average Deaf folks how they sign "doctor" the vast majority of them sign it with a "D"!

Then when you go back to the ASL instructors and show them a video of various Deaf people signing doctor with a "D" the ASL instructors will tell you "Oh, that is because those pour souls have had their language bastardized by their (Hearing) interpreters and (Hearing) teachers while growing up. They don't sign 'real ASL' like I do."

[Update: A new, interesting question to ask is, "How did you sign 'doctor' when you were younger?"]

So, you tell me, which version is more "ASL?" The sign that is occurring with the higher frequency at Deaf events throughout America, or the sign prescribed by various ASL instructors???  [Update: Including me.]

The thing about languages is this:  If enough people DO jump on the bandwagon and start signing the BENT-hand version (based on "M"edic) instead of the "D"-hand version (based on "D"octor), at some point the "D"octor sign really does become  the "wrong" sign. This is simply due to the fact that languages are about consensus.  At some point if 51% of the Deaf community starts signing doctor with "a BENT-hand" (a modified "M") then that sign should be listed as the "main" variation and the sign "D"octor should be listed as a secondary variation.  At some point if so few people sign "D"octor that the majority of the Deaf community would not easily recognize it out of context then I'd say the sign is actually "wrong."  Time will tell.
Dr. Bill
[Heh...time did tell: I updated my "DOCTOR" page to list the BENT-hand version first.  Language evolution! YAY!]

In a message dated 8/24/2012 8:46:41 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, miand2464 writes:
Dr Vicars:
I have contacted you several times in the past few years.
I took my SLPI for the first time in April. I got Survival Plus. (Which KILLED me). The scorer, _________ of the WPSD, took off major points for "overuse of initialized signs". He listed 1. BASEMENT. Which I totally knew better than. But that B hand just slipped out. 2. LIFE/LIVE. I know that the pointy finger can be tucked in for LIVE, but tons of Deaf use the L hand for that sign. Anyway, I retook it last month (advanced, thank you very much), and AGAIN he cited my "overuse" of the dreaded initialized sign. This time, he cited my D hand in DECISION. I don't even know the alternative to using the D hand for that. I think he has a bee in his bonnet regarding the issue. Do you have any thoughts on this?
The first time I broached this issue with you was the R hands in RESPONSIBILITY. Thanks for addressing that at your wonderfully helpful site. It's my GO TO site for a dictionary. I only go to ________, if you don't have the sign listed.
I hope we get to meet one day.
Mian D.
The DECIDE (decision) sign has many important ties to the "F" handshape. Let me share some information with you and tell you a story. Look at a few coins in your pocket and you'll notice that the coins which used to be made out of silver have ridges along the edges. Those ridges are there to prevent the practice of "shaving." Back in the very old days when coins were made out of precious metals if those coins had smooth round edges it was relatively easy and common for unscrupulous people to "shave" a bit of gold or silver off of the coin. Shop keepers used to put coins on a balance scale to check to judge if the incoming coin weighed as much as the reference coin. If the incoming coin didn't weigh as much, the shopkeeper could decide that it had been shaved and thus reject it. If a person was caught shaving he could end up in court.
Now, is that story true? Perhaps, perhaps not. But my point is many of those concepts: "coin," "court," "if," "judge," and "decide" are all based on the classifier "F" handshape (depiction verb) used to show a "small round object." Someone who is very familiar with and comfortable using ASL would tend feel a little "uncomfortable" using a "D" handshape for the sign "DECIDE." Also, there is no set or combination of English concepts competing for the location, orientation, movement, and handshape used by the sign "DECIDE."
The sign "NURSE" gets initialized because the English concept of "nurse" competes with the English concept of "doctor" for the same articulatory features(location, movement, orientation). The signs "GOVERNMENT" and "POLITICS" are also acceptably initialized because they too compete for the same "real estate."
The sign "DECIDE" is not competing against some other concept for the articulatory bundle consisting of: "point to head with the index finger of the dominant hand, then transition to both hands in front of you in F-handshapes and bring them both downward a short distance and end with an abrupt stop."
Thus changing the handshape from an "F" hand into a "D" hand only serves to make the sign more "English-like." Initialization in this case doesn't serve to reduce competition nor increase distinction. Rather, initialization degrades the sign "DECIDE" by pulling it further away from it's iconic roots.
Which signs should and should not be initialized isn't random. On an individual sign by sign basis it isn't even all that complex. The challenge is that cumulatively there are thousands and thousands of yet to be written "rules" that apply to ASL. I've just "written" a few of those rules for you regarding the sign for "DECIDE."
As a lexicographer I will likely be documenting such rules and explaining their applications for the rest of my life. (And it is also likely I will only manage to make a minor "dent" in the overall documentation process).
So what is a student or practitioner of a language to do? How can they come to know when initialization is and is not acceptable?
Study is helpful but only goes so far.
Beyond study it is a matter of exposure and use.
After a person has obtained sufficient knowledge and skill in ASL via frequent, prolonged, and ongoing exposure to the language via interaction with skilled signers he or she will eventually get a "feel" for what is right and what isn't right.
So, press forward and carry on!
-- Dr. Bill


Code of Ethics 
Diamond (ring) 
Dr. Pepper 
French fries 
Hard of Hearing 
Interest (related to money) 
New Orleans 
St. Louis 
Time (era)
Vice president 
Washington State 
Washington, D.C. 

[Special Thanks to Katie O'Brien for collaborating on the list above.]
back.gif (1674 bytes)

Students are often confused as to when it is okay and when it is not okay to initialize a sign.

It may help to think more in terms of "unnecessary" English linkage as being the issue.

Marking up your signing with more complex handshapes when simpler shapes will do -- adds unnecessary work and is therefore disliked by those who do a lot of signing.

Doing the sign RED with an "R" hand instead of an index finger doesn't add appreciably to the communication effectiveness of the sign since there are no conflicting homonyms. In other words the sign "RED" isn't competing with any other signs using that movement, orientation, and location -- except the sign PINK.  Since RED is the more common concept it gets the "unmarked" handshape (of a "plain" index finger) and PINK get marked up with a "P" handshape.

NURSE with a modified-N hand is efficacious (good) because otherwise the sign would be ambiguous and easily confused with "doctor."

The reason why this is a hard concept for Hearing people is that to know when it is good and when it is not good to use an initialized sign you have to know the spectrum of existing signs.

Beginners can't make good decisions or choices related to when and when not to initialize a sign because beginners do not know which signs have competition (for the same location, orientation, and movement) and which signs don't.

That is why you are following the right path:
Find a decent sign that you see being used by lots of Deaf people and stick with that sign until you have compelling evidence otherwise.

Now just repeat that process 10,000 times.


Also see: The caterpillar model


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