Available for a student report.
Also see book review 7
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
Discussion: A discussion regarding the initialized version of the initialized sign for
A person interested in signing writes:
<<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 really, "S"ingle is no more
"English" than the signs Aunt and Uncle are "English" signs.
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 plenty 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 perhaps
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 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 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
It is a well known fact that languages borrow from other languages
they come in contact with. English uses words like guru
(Hindi) and taco (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. Some of ASL is actually French Sign Language, introduced to American
Deaf through Laurent Clerc.
Many signs use “initialization” to clarify a meaning. 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
Are these signs really English and not ASL? Of course not! These are
natural ASL signs that are accepted by the Deaf community. Initialization
of American Sign Language signs is a natural occurrence in ASL that won’t fade
any time soon.
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?
Uh huh. And an "M" for "medic" is less English how?
No need to answer that.
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.
I've seen the argument presented dozens of ways.
But really, it is not a regional thing -- it is an "anti-English"
It is the Gays reclaiming the word "queer" and wearing it on their
shirts and using it in their organization names.
It is "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 possibly be done without an initial. This is
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 "over initialization."
Some of the favorite targets for "de-initialization" are the signs
doctor, breakfast, lunch, dinner, system, vocabulary, and free.
For example it is you will see people signing "eat night" instead of dinner.
To try to put some sanity back into the world, I start asking such
they do the list of signs below.
After a bit it becomes very obvious 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 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 "M" version maps to an old English
word that meant doctor.
Already having an initialized sign for doctor (based on
medic) doesn't automatically mean that another 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 one that looks more like English.
Here's the funny thing. I go to work where my colleagues are ASL
Instructors and ask them how do you sign "doctor." They will
generally show me the "M" version and/or show me show me both and
then "educate me" that the "M" version is "more" ASL.
Then I go to a community event and ask average Deaf folks how do you sign
"doctor" and the vast majority of them sign it with a "D"!
So, you tell me, which version is more "ASL?"
But the thing about languages is this. If enough people DO jump on
the bandwagon and start signing "M"edic instead of "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
"bent fingers" (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 was
actually "wrong." Time will tell.
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 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
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)
The caterpillar model