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American Sign Language:  "coffee"

The sign for coffee:

Think of the movement of an old coffee grinder. The bottom hand stays still while the top hand turns the crank.

Loading..."coffee animated gif file"

Sample sentence: "Do you take sugar in your coffee?" = "YOUR COFFEE, YOU LIKE SUGAR?"


In a message dated 8/18/2006 9:10:56 PM Pacific Daylight Time, tnslefler@ writes:
Hi, I'm Sherri Lefler. I'm a coda and one of my five children is Deaf. I'm an interpreter working on a project to better serve our Deaf clients with the Michigan Rehabilitation Department of Labor and Economics. Our program offers certificates in several different trades. Most of which there or no specific specialized signs for names of machinery and equipment that are accepted as a standard. There are several interpreters that for years have been stuck in the same trade area due to experience and familiarity with the jargon and sign set-ups. Due to high demand and interest in keeping interpreters flexible and able to cover each other I have begun to develop a standardized vocabulary for these specialized trades to be used within our school.  I have used your site as a reference many times to see how some of the most standard signs compare to our region here in Michigan. I am curious if you have signs for Latte and Cappuccino to go along with our Culinary Arts department?
Thanks for you time.

Sherri Lefler
Sign Language Interpreter
(269) 492-____ mobile
(269) 343-____ tty/voice

I asked one of my friends who is a coffee connoisseur what she signs for those concepts.  Below is her reply.
In a message dated 8/18/2006 11:33:29 PM Pacific Daylight Time, Sandra Thrapp (Deaf) writes:
There is no sign for Latte (most of my Deaf friends fingerspell that word).
Cappuccino - we sign "coffee small strong"  (handshape "F" holding the coffee mug handle)

Kevin Jackson, a communications specialist at a group home in Humboldt County serving youth with development delays, writes:

Hello Dr. Vicars,
My name is Kevin.
I ... frequently attend get-togethers and gatherings with the Deaf Community in Santa Rosa ... my friends and I have signs for
Latte and Mocha [that are] similar to [the sign for] "coffee" except that instead of a closed fist on top we use an M for mocha and L for latte. I noticed on the "coffee page" that a person suggested that there is no sign for latte or mocha).
- Kevin Jackson

Hello :)
Do any of your Deaf friends use those signs? Where did you learn them? Did you come up with them yourself?
- Bill

I came up with the signs while in discussion with my [Deaf] friends in Humboldt County, at Starbucks coincidentally. I had asked them how to sign Mocha and they told me that they just fingerspell it or sign CHOCOLATE+COFFEE, Latte was fingerspelled also, if they just wanted a plain latte. If they wanted a flavored latte they were always inclined to write the whole drink order on a piece of paper and then give it to the barista. I was simply trying to bridge a gap between the barista and the Deaf customer, we're still working on it. But now everyone at this Starbucks knows the signs for mocha, latte, coffee, sugar, milk etc. This star bucks also holds a gathering of Deaf folk every Sunday, its a small group usually between 6-10 people at a time.
- Kevin


The signs you and your friends have invented there at that Starbucks in Humbolt County are "initialized" signs.  You have used the initial of the English word as one of the handshapes of the sign.

My thoughts:

Starbucks is a "overlap" place. By that I mean that on Sunday evenings when your Deaf group gathers for coffee Starbucks becomes a bilingual / bicultural environment filled with people from two different cultures and two different languages.  What happens in such a place is the two cultures and languages (Hearing/Deaf & English/ASL) overlap which tends to result in the development of a form of communication called "contact signing." (Formerly called "pidgin signed English in some texts.)  Contact signing by its very definition is not ASL. Which isn't to say that it isn't useful.  "Contact communication" is useful in those situations during which two cultures are "in contact." But when those cultures are no longer in contact there is no need for contact-communication.

It is a matter of efficiency:
Two Hearing English speakers: Efficient = spoken English
Two Deaf ASL signers: Efficient = ASL
One Hearing English speaker & one Deaf ASL signer: Efficient = contact signing

Note that contact-signing in general is not more efficient than either ASL or spoken English. But when two cultures come into contact for whatever reason (Hearing people to sell coffee / Deaf people to buy coffee) they tend to meet half way since it is "more efficient" than learning "all of" the other person's language.

So, while efficient and useful in mixed settings -- your invented signs are not "ASL."

It is possible that the initialized signs "mocha" and "latte" might spread and be adopted for use by many Deaf coffee-shop gathering attendees but there are two factors that will impede the widespread use of those signs the Deaf Community:

1.  The word mocha basically means "put chocolate in coffee." Thus the ASL sign for mocha is to sign "chocolate" while ordering coffee.  Note that I said "while ordering coffee."  Thus we have a sign for "mocha" but that sign only "exists" when the circumstances are right.

2. The word "latte" can be spelled in approximately one second with one hand.  To initialize the sign "coffee" with an "L" takes more time, and "twice as many hands." 

The reason why using an initialized sign for "latte" appeals to coffee shop attendees and employees is because Hearing people are "fingerspelling-impaired."  They can't spell or read fingerspelling as fast as Deaf people. Thus signing "L"-coffee is an accommodation or crutch requested by Hearing people (via "invention") and acquiesced to by Deaf people for the sake of efficiency in mixed environments.

When the environment is no longer mixed, (the Deaf finish ordering and walk away from the counter and the Hearing students get eye-strain and go home) the need for the "crutch" disappears and Deaf people go back to spelling "latte" at high speed amongst themselves. 


In a message dated 4/24/2011 1:22:53 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, noojon (Fred) writes:

Bill -
Thanks for your help way back when. I asked my Deaf barista how to sign various things, and she was quite helpful. It was a lot of fun for a while, but then our schedules changed or something, because I stopped seeing her there.

Anyway, the sign for "espresso" is the motion like someone pantomiming sipping from an espresso cup: a squished O hand tipped up at the mouth. You can extend one or more of the lower fingers a bit for accent. Most people don't extend any fingers, exactly, so much as the
lower fingers don't have to be touching.

For "double espresso", I would do "espresso" + "double" (back-and-forth 2 hand drawn away from the body). she understood that instantly. similarly for "single espresso".

"Iced coffee" is "I-C-E" + "coffee."

"Cappucino" is "C-A-P."

I forget what she said for "latte". maybe just "L"? it's probably "L-A-T" -- not sure how to keep from confusing "L" for "a pound of coffee beans." I guess people who care enough to buy beans tend to drink it black (rather than obliterate the taste with milk). So the people who sign one or the other may be different groups. also, people frequently order lattes by specifying hot vs iced (at least in Texas), which would preclude the interpretation of meaning coffee beans.

Hot coffees are generally assumed except during the worst
parts of summer (at least in Texas), but some people are weird. It can go either way all year round.

Anything more complicated than that is generally given a name that changes from coffee shop to coffee shop, which would be signed out word by word or letter by letter until it's unique and meaningful.

For instance, everyone creates some pun based on the name of the business for a hot coffee with a shot of espresso:
Creek tweak (Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse)
Spider Bite (Spider House)
Depth Charge (???)
Big O (Ohm's), etc.
I used to have a long list of these names I kept for fun.

That said, her coffeeshop has what they call an "espresso affogato," which is a double espresso poured over a scoop of ice cream. I tried to spell out "affogato" and she didn't catch on. When i signed "espresso" + "ice cream", though, she got it instantly. I think part of the problem is that no one ever orders that--even the hearing baristas (who do more taking of orders) don't know how to ring it up, and the owner always thinks they're asking how to ring up "espresso avocado!"

That's as far as we got in just our few visits. i didn't confirm the signs with anyone else -- I don't know any other coffee-signing experts--but both the signs and the signing confusion feel universal.

We live in Austin, next to the Texas school for the Deaf.

I hope that wasn't too pedantic, I don't know how much you frequent local coffee shops, or how much the cultures change from city to city!
Thanks again for your help!

- Fred

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You can learn sign language (ASL) online at American Sign Language University    Dr. William Vicars

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