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American Sign Language: "The Gender Morpheme"

Regarding gender neutral signing:

Placement of certain signs near the forehead indicates a masculine form (boy, dad, brother, uncle, grandfather) and placement near the chin conveys the feminine form.

I asked my wife (Belinda), “Why it is that all the male signs are up near the brain and all the female signs are down near the mouth?”

She replied, "That's because men think they know what they are talking about but women really do."

Er...seriously though, the etymology (history) of this male/female location links back hundreds of years ago to head-gear. Hats were traditionally worn by men whereas women typically wore "bonnets" that were tied under the chin. The current sign for BOY/male is based on the tipping of a hat. The sign for GIRL is based on the string of a bonnet running along the jaw line.

A student asked me, "What about "gender neutrality? How would we sign 'sibling?'"

A number of years back an intersex person (a person of non-binary gender identity) in the Sacramento, California region showed me a sign for what s/he called “DA-MOM.” (Which could also be labeled “DAD-MOM.”) S/he and “hir” partner used this sign in their home with their children. The sign consists of the traditional “5”-handshape but instead of doing it at the forehead or the chin it is done on the side of the head (near the cheekbone) midway between the forehead and the chin. Thus their approach to gender neutrality was to alter the location of the sign.

A similar approach is used for a gender-neutral version of “sibling” by starting the sign at the side of the side of the face midway between the forehead and chin.

By doing certain signs half-way between the traditional "male"/"female" signing locations we can effectively strip them of "gender."

The sign for COUSIN is generally considered to be “gender-neutral.” However, COUSIN can (in context) be signed higher or lower to add gender. (Thus we see location functioning as a morpheme adding the meaning of “male” or “female.”)



Note: There is a sign that is common in Deaf churches wherein the phrase “brothers and sisters” is used frequently. The “BROTHERS-AND-SISTERS” sign (when done casually by a skilled signer) starts near the dominant-side-midpoint of the face (non-contact). The hand (in a modified “L”-handshape) moves downward/forward while changing to a formal-“G”-handshape, quickly moves back up to a position slightly below the original starting location (while changing into the original loose-“L” handshape) and then moves down/forward again to make contact with the non-dominant “1”-hand. The two concepts (BROTHER and SISTER) have become a single compound sign “BROTHER-SISTER” which, in context, carries the meaning of “brothers and sisters” (which in further context actually means “congregants of this church”).

Note:  The more casually signs such as DAD, BROTHER, UNCLE, COUSIN, or SIBLINGS are done – the lower (and further from the head) the starting location. Thus often you will see (advanced signers doing) the sign BROTHER starting off to the side of (and forward of) the face below the midpoint. Out of context the “advanced casual” version of the sign BROTHER could be misconstrued to mean “sister.”


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