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American Sign Language: "spit"


Regarding the sign "SPIT"

Question:  A student asks:

"Is the sign for SPITTING the same as the sign for TATTLING?"

The signs SPIT and TATTLE are very similar. The main difference between the two has to do with non-manual markers (facial expressions, head tilts, torso movements, shoulder raises, mouth morphemes, etc.) and inflections (such as changes to the speed and/or movement path of the sign).

Let's compare the two signs a bit:

TATTLE: The sign TATTLE is almost always done starting at the mouth and moving toward the non-dominant side. This sign would generally not be done any other direction than toward the side. The facial expression can reflect the nature of the tattling (for example: mischievous) or the feelings of the signer regarding tattling (for example: disdain). This sign can be repeated to show that the tattling is habitual.

SPIT: The sign SPIT can be inflected (modified/changed) to show the nature and direction of the spitting. When you do the sign for SPIT you (generally should) move your mouth as if you were actually spitting. Usually the sign is angled downward. However you can modify the movement path of the sign to show the path of the spit. For example: in an arch. You may also see during storytelling a signer role shift (adopt the role of / role play) and portray a person spitting in a certain way or spitting out a distasteful drink.

Interestingly enough it may help to think of the sign SPIT not as just the sign for spit but rather as the sign for "projectile" or as meaning "particular item travel quickly along a specific path to a specific destination." It just so happens that when we locate the "projectile" sign at the mouth and direct the movement outward and downward (or to the side or wherever) the "projectile" sign naturally takes on the added meaning of saliva. (Since saliva is typically in a mouth and often is projected outward). But the PROJECTILE sign (which uses a cocked index finger that flicks outward quickly can also be used for other things. For example, in the 1990's when pagers (small electronic devices that could receive short messages and display the number of incoming phone calls) were popular it was common to see people flick their index finger toward their hip to mean "page me." Later, the "projectile" sign became commonly used as a sign that meant "send an email to." Another interesting version of the projectile sign is to use it as a form of the sign ASK. Perhaps you are familiar with the phrase "fired off a question to.." which means to ask a question to someone.

Thus TATTLE and SPIT are based on the same concept: "projectile."  In one instance we are sending off "information" and in the other instance we are sending off "saliva." It is context (what has been said or established earlier in the conversation), non-manual markers, and inflection that indicate the exact meaning of the sign.



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