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WINTER: The American Sign Language (ASL) sign for "winter"

In "high context" situations, the concept of "winter" can be expressed in ASL by simply signing "COLD."




Many people just sign "cold" when they mean "winter." That is okay as long as you can figure out the meaning from the context of the sentence.  If there is any ambiguity (if it isn't clear) as to the meaning, then you can use an initialized sign that uses "W" handshapes on the sign "cold."



Sample sentence: Does it snow here in the winter? = WINTER HERE SNOW?


Question: Casey Markov asks:
This may be a stupid question so feel free to ignore but to sign winter you use COLD with or without the W form but could you do the same with summer? to say that it is a hot summer day you use an S shape while signing HOT?

Hello Casey!
I think that is a great question!

The short answer is: No.

The medium answer is: Well, gee, you can sign anything you want, wave your hands in the air wildly, and run around like a lunatic but if you want to have successful conversations in the Deaf Community it is best to sign in ways that are similar to the signing being done by socially active adult Deaf native signers.

The longer answer involves a couple of big (but fun) words:

1. disambiguation
2. differentiation

If a situation is ambiguous it means that it is unclear, inexact, and open to interpretation.

Disambiguation is a fancy way of saying to make something more clear so there is no confusion about it. After a thing or situation has been disambiguated it is then unambiguous or easy to interpret.

Differentiation is just a fancy way of saying to make something different.

We can use differentiation to help accomplish disambiguation.

In other words we can make things obviously different in order to avoid errors in interpretation and reduce misunderstanding.

For example:

A person can differentiate the sign COLD by adding "W" handshapes to specify the concept of "winter."

COLD + "W"-handshape = WINTER (unambiguous)

COLD + "S" handshapes = "cold" or "winter" [but defaults to "cold"]

An alternate way of differentiating "winter from cold" (other than adding a "W" handshape) is to rely on context.

COLD (signed with "S" handshapes) + "context" = WINTER

A third way of differentiating "winter from cold" is to use a mouth movement that looks as if you are pronouncing the word "winter."

So, you need either a difference in handshape, a mouth movement, and/or context to differentiate WINTER from COLD.

You may be asking yourself: Why in the world would someone choose to sign COLD without "W" handshapes with the intent of creating the meaning of "winter?" Why would someone deliberately (on purpose) choose to sign in a more ambiguous (less clear) way?

A few reasons:
1. Globality: Your signing of WINTER would be more global in nature if you do it with "S" hands. Greater numbers of signers of languages other than ASL would recognize your sign more readily because a significant number of signed languages use a shaking of fists sign to mean "winter."
(See ;
(See "spreadthesign(dot)com" and look up WINTER)

2. Simplicity: The "W" handshape is slightly more complex and requires a micro (extremely small) bit more effort to do that an "S" handshape.

3. Conventionality: "(of a person) concerned with what is generally held to be acceptable at the expense of individuality and sincerity." (Source: Lexico)

4. Cachet: "The state of being respected or admired; prestige." (Source: Lexico)

Think of conventionality as being "herd mentality" or going along with the herd. Many others are doing it this way so I'd better do it this way even though it seems stupid to me and is less clear.

Cachet is (arguably) the real reason (in this situation) for choosing ambiguity over clarity. Whether they admit it or not, most people crave respect and admiration. We want to be part of the "in" crowd. We want to be one of the "cool kids" and if we can't be then at least we want to be quirky enough to be admired for being avant-garde.

(Avant-garde means "Favoring or introducing experimental or unusual ideas." Source: Lexico).

In other words what we give up in clarity of our signing we get back in cachet.

Our formula or recipe thus becomes:
COLD (signed with "S" hands) + "context" = "winter" + a smidgen of ambiguity + cachet

(If you don't know what the word smidgen means look it up.)

Getting back to the question of "Can we sign SUMMER by doing the HOT sign with an S' handshape?"

I told you this was the long answer but the answer is still "no."

The reason though is because we don't need to disambiguate the sign SUMMER from the sign HOT because the sign SUMMER is already differentiated by handshape, location, and movement.

In other words, if it isn't broken don't fix it.

More specifically, let's not change ASL just to satisfy the desire for convenience of Hearing English-as-a-first-language speakers who want to mentally link ASL to their native language for ease of learning and retention. Instead we can form more organic or natural memory aids such as associating the sign SUMMER with wiping sweat from one's brow during the hot days of summer.

I get it. It's natural for second language learners to want to link to their first language. The human brain seeks to make sense of things. Our brains form links and organize data into patterns to make it easier to remember things.

To be clear, (or to disambiguate, heh) I actually applaud (or rather wave my hands in the air like a lunatic) the fact that you are thinking about and seeking ways to learn, remember, and use ASL. Keep it up!







See: ICE

Also see: HOT

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