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
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, firstname.lastname@example.org 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
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
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.
-- Dr. Bill
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 Lifeprint.com.
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.
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
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.
initialization is so "obvious" it is easy to label (or as
I'm suggesting is the case:
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,
Katie Beaman & Bill Vicars
April 22, 2003,
updated January, 2014
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.
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?
[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"
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.
often attempted or accomplished by labeling commonly initialized
words as Signed English -- thus instantly stigmatizing the
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
[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:
I have contacted you several times in the past
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
. 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
I hope we get to meet one day.
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
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
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
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
So, press forward and carry on!
-- Dr. Bill
Code of Ethics
Hard of Hearing
Interest (related to money)
[Special Thanks to Katie O'Brien for collaborating on the list
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.
The caterpillar model