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"Grab Bag" Various Questions 3:

The information below is a collection of miscellaneous questions people have asked me.  Sometimes I have time to answer this type of question, sometimes I don't.  I love you all, but there is only so much time in the day...

In a message dated 12/31/2002 1:19:55 AM Central Standard Time, a student writes:

Hello Bill,
Perhaps you can give me an idea regarding an ASL-English dictionary. Whenever I start learning a new language, I begin by searching for a good dictionary going both ways (Russian-English, English-Russian, for example). What puzzles me about ASL is that most dictionaries on the market are English-ASL. The only one I've been able to find which is ASL-English is "The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary" by Richard A. Tennant and Marianne G. Brown. Only it's quite small, 1,600 signs and, in my opinion, they could've done better job indexing the
signs. Do you know whether there are other dictionaries on the market which are ASL-English?

I realize that it's not easy to index signs, but still, whenever people learn a language they need some reference to look up unknown words (signs in this case), so I'm sure other people have similar questions.

Happy holidays,


I know the dictionary  you are talking about.  I'm looking at an ad for it right here in the Gallaudet University Press catalog.  The ad indicates "This unique dictionary can help..." 

Notice the word "unique" in the description?  They aren't kidding.  There really isn't much out there regarding going from ASL to English (instead of the other way around)...YET.

One place to look though would be "gesture recognition systems."  There are a number of technology-based projects going on at universities and elsewhere that are developing methods of allowing computers to recognize and interpret ASL.

Such programs have many thousands of ASL signs in their database.

Eventually they will be commercially available.  Until then, you might want to do a few Internet searches to see if you can track down who is doing the work and if any of it is available for public inspection.

Regarding "The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary," you mentioned that you felt, " they could've done better job indexing the signs."  What would you suggest by way of improvements?


In a message dated 1/3/2003 1:55:02 PM Central Standard Time, writes:

First, I really enjoy your tapes, they are a great way for me to learn. Worth every cent :)
Just a quickie question, how would you sign, in ASL, the following sentence.
Would you actually use the sign for "have" in this concept, or would you sign this sentence totally different then its English structure.

The sentence: "We have come to school."
It is not really past tense, and it is not really present tense, so what is it in ASL :),

Thanks for your help,



I'd sign, "WE COME SCHOOL." While nodding my head affirmatively.
Or if I want to point out that we are officially here at school, I'd sign, "WE COME SCHOOL FINISH!"

That is a "weird" sentence. A more likely construct would be: "We have come to a decision."

Which I would sign, "WE DECIDE FINISH."

If I wanted to sign the sentence, "We have come to school so we can improve ourselves." I would sign, "WE COME HERE WHY?-(rhetorical) IMPROVE SELF-(horizontal sweeping motion.)


A student asked me about how to sign a concept that didn't exist.  In my reply I talked about how signs come into existence and evolve.  Here is part of that conversation:

I saw this happen when a group of graduate level deaf students were
discussing an article in which the word "helmet" was being used frequently. 
 No-one in the group had an established sign for helmet. Note, these were VERY
 skilled signers who had no problem whatsoever communicating the concept of
 "helmet" -- but there was simply no standard sign used by everyone.
 Over the course of an hour I watched the sign evolve.  At first most people
 were using  spread-slightly-curved 5-handshapes represent a helmet (with a
 motion that looked as if you were sliding a helmet onto your head.  Near the
 end of the conversation, everyone was signing helmet by using "bent-L"

In a message dated 1/5/2003 11:41:57 PM Central Standard Time, writes:

Hi Bill,
Since your last email I thought about your question regarding improvement of Handshape Dictionary, learned more about ASL, and most important, read carefully the intro to the dictionary where they explain how they organize signs. And now I see that they have actually done a very good job. And as for the question of why this dictionary is out of print (and therefore I assume not used by many people studying ASL) is because it's a very technical dictionary. You cannot just open it and use it like most ASL-English dictionary. (That's what I did and so jumped into conclusion that it could be improved!) I guess the problem is that it's very tricky to index visual pictures in terms of an alphabet of a hearing language, that's why, to explain fully how they indexed it, they had to write a long and quite complicated, in my opinion, explanation in the introduction. And probably not many students of ASL have enough patience or insentive to do all that work to just learn how to use a dictionary. (from my experience of learning foreign languages in college I was surprised to see that most American folks are quite cold and unchallenged in learning other languages)

What I still cannot figure out is how big is ASL. Usually, when I'm seriously learning a language, I try to buy the best dictionary that I can find. And one of the important factors is how many words it has. For example, my English-Russian dictionary is about 50,000 words, Russian-English is about the same. (did I tell you that I am from Russia? And the first language I learned was English). Now with ASL things are very different. Based on your advice and my "investigation" it looks like the best ASL-English dictionary is Random House ASL which has ~5,600 signs. That seems so little! Of course, I haven't been learning ASL long enough to know it's grammar well, but I see already that many ASL verbs are just a variation of the same noun, and that signs like drink and juice are also similar. So, I don't expect ASL to have as many words as hearing languages, but at least 15,000 or 10,000? Well, I guess I got carried away. It's really not that important, and I already decided to buy that Random House dictionary, but it's still a very interesting topic and you may want to discuss it on your site or tell me where I can read about that (a book or a link on the Internet)

Thanks for your email that made me reconsider my words,


Somewhere packed away I have a dictionary of 10,000 ASL signs that I bought way back in 1986 from the Oregon School for the Deaf. (Salem) They had "self-produced" it. It is two large binders with many hundreds of pages. It contains quite a bit of what might arguably be termed "SEE." But there is no doubting that it also contains an awesome amount and variety of ASL vocabulary that was, is, and continues to be used at that school.

You ask a great question..."How many ASL signs are there?"
That is somewhat like asking, how many colors are there on an artists palette. Obviously there is no end to the number of colors he can produce because he can mix and match to create.


In a message dated 1/11/2003 12:53:10 PM Central Standard Time, JACKIEDENNIS9 writes:

Hi there, I am a student of Wolverhampton University England.
I am training to become an interpreter and currently struggling with a linguistics presentation.
My specific question is;
Do ASL signers maintain a neutral mouth-pattern when indexing (pointing) a pronoun.
ie. if a person or thing has been established, by whatever method and then referred back to, do people tend to mouth that name, or he or she or it? or just keep their mouth "neutral?"
A quick response would be extremely useful!!!
Many thanks, in anticipation,
Jackie Dennis


Great question. Someday I'll have to videotape some conversations and check for mouth movements during indexing.

I remember a well known ASL expert mentioning at a recent conference that she felt there needed to be more research done on the "taboo" topic of mouthing and ASL.

My response is it happens in varying degrees according to the inclination of the individual communicator. If a person developed his speech to the point where it is a familiar second mode of communication, he will tend to mouth certain concepts in ASL. Of course, there are many deaf who hardly move their mouths if at all.

I know I've seen skilled ASL communicators mouthing the "o" of the word "YOU." I've also seen the "m" of the word "HIM."

But to call that a linguistic principle would be premature. To say that it happens and is a real phenomenon would be accurate. To say that it is or is not appropriate according to some "rule" without having done quite a bit of experimentation would be difficult to back up.

With that in mind, my opinion is that the mouth is, for the most part, neutral when doing a simple index of a pre-established pronoun.


In a message dated 2/6/2003 1:55:59 PM Central Standard Time, writes:

Dr. Vicars,
Recently I found your web page and I am really enjoying the information. Your method of teaching is so clear. I find most ASL instructors don't mind giving the rules of ASL grammar, but they are hesitant to give good examples. I appreciate how extensively you answer questions.

I have two questions:

1) I notice that some of your information is from the year 2001, yet your web page is scrolling messages that indicate the site is under construction. Are you currently having your site updated, and when do you think more information will be available?

2) I have an English sentence that I am having trouble changing into ASL.
The sentence is: Sometimes people are not treated fairly.
I can't find a sign for the word "treat". The best I could do is sign: SOMETIMES PEOPLE (signed on my left) - OTHER PEOPLE (signed on my right) DISCRIMINATE (toward left) - NOT FAIR.
I'm sure there is a better way. Maybe you could make a suggestion.

Thank you for your time.

Brenna L. Thomas



Well, as I'm sure you know, there are a number of ways to interpret this sentence.
The word "treat" is one of those English concepts that can mean many different things and therefore has many different interpretations. For example my kids like treats (SWEET, CANDY, COOKIE, CAKE).

Now, your sentence "Sometimes people are not treated fairly" seems hard because it is using a passive construction. Sort of like the sentence, "He was shot." Who shot him? You have to establish who is doing the shooting. For example, you could sign "MAN, INDEX-left, SOMEONE-right (bodyshift face-left) SHOOT-(towardleft)"

One way to interpret "Sometimes people are not treated fairly" would be to sign:
PEOPLE ASSOCIATE-(circular sweep inclusive) EQUAL, EQUAL-(reposition) EQUAL-(reposition) ALWAYS? NOT!

That ASL construct would indicate that people do not always interact fairly with each other.

But if you by "not treated fairly" you mean a bunch of things like: taken advantage of, discriminated against, prevented from progressing, given less opportunity...etc. Then you will need to either sign all of that...or use the rest of the discourse to make it clear. You don't just walk up to another person and start signing about human rights issues...there must be a context. To interpret a sentence like that out of context would require several minutes of signing. You could have ten different interpretations and any one of them would be more or less correct depending on the context.

Regarding you question about the updating of my site:  It is an ongoing process.  Almost everyday I add some tidbit or other to it.  Some updates are more extensive than others.


In a message dated 4/3/2003 2:46:03 PM Central Standard Time, writes:

Hello Dr. Vicars,
I have enjoyed looking through ASL University. I am a sign language terp in educational setting using SEE, but I
am learning ASL. We have been watching a Mark Mitchum tape and have seen a sign with which we are not familiar.

He starts with flat palms at mouth, palms in similar to the sign for grateful then the two hands come down , palms
up, thumbs on little fingers. as the hands move apart the thumbs move along fingers ending in the a
the sign for smooth or dirt.

The lyrics are about making promises that are broken. I don't have a dictionary that shows the handshapes and I
can't find anything on-line.

The other sign he uses is both hands are s shapes palms out, right hand hits the back of left hand and the left
hand opens to a five and both hands move forward.

any help would be appreciated...Thank you so much.

 Steph B

Hi Steph,
Hmmm, if I had to take a wild guess I'd reckon he is signing a version of THANK YOU and then signs DISSOLVE. 
That other sign probably is a version of BLESS.
I suggest you call him. You can call 817-375-8850 and ask for a direct number and then use a relay service. Or email him at and ask him what he is signing.
Good luck.

In a message dated 5/25/2003 12:32:20 AM Central Daylight Time, writes:

Hello Bill,

I have a question: Have you ever heard of people who are not deaf but who have instead severe speech impairments that prevent them from articulate speech but their principal communication tool is sign? Does /can the deaf include them in the signing community?

I am just curious about that. I recently saw a film entitled 'Mute Witness' where the principal character, a woman, could hear but not speak and was a fluent signer. The movie was quite good and sparked my interest in mute signing people. Can't find anything much about them on the web and I wondered if you or anyone in the deaf community knew of these people.

Thanks for any info and I am working on learning ASL. Don't know anybody who uses it but am learning something about it.


Hello Richard,

Yes, I have heard of and have met people with impaired speech who have integrated themselves into the Deaf Community.
I've done some looking, and you are right...there isn't much out there.
Let me add my small contribution to your research. When you get 500 or so words on the topic, perhaps you would care to type it up as a paper and submit it to the Library at

Here are some links and info:
One flew over the cuckoos nest (1975) featured a Deaf, speech impaired Native American who uses ASL. The Milos Forman tragi-comedy starred Jack Nicolson.
The Piano (1993) tells the story of a speech impaired sign language user who travels to New Zealand. The film starred Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel.
"6 in 100 children will at some stage have a speech, language or communication difficulty.
NHS Centre for Reviews and Dissemination: Pre-school hearing, speech, language and vision screening (Effective Health Care Volume 4 No 2, 1998)

At least 1 in 500 children experiences severe, long-term difficulties.
David Hall, Health for all Children (1996)"
Source:  <<>>


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