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American Sign Language: 

Book Spotlight
"Speaking the Language of Sign"

Topic:  "Specialized Signs" by Jerome D. Schein, Ph.D. from the book "Speaking the Language of Sign."

Can you swear in sign? Does Ameslan [ASL] have naughty words? Is Ameslan up-to-date; with signs for the new drugs? Space flight? Medical terminology?

The answer to all these questions is yes. Ameslan provides for a full range of blasphemies. There may not be a precise one-to-one relation between the swear words of English and the signed versions, but there are ample signs to cover all pejoratives and cast every curse.

No aspect of sexual behavior is without a sign, whether male or female homosexual or heterosexual. These signs have recently been collected and published especially to aid interpreters (by) James Woodward, (who) points out how important it can be to distinguish between various sexual signs. For example, in a court case, a deaf man was asked if he wanted to rape the woman he was alleged to have attacked. The interpreter, ignorant of the sign for rape, phrased the question, "Did you want to have intercourse with the woman?" Obviously, a yes response could have resulted in the deaf man's conviction through misunderstanding.

The sexual signs include names for body parts, very important to physicians examining deaf persons. The various signs need to be understood by therapists working with emotionally disturbed deaf clients. Similarly, a dictionary of terms for drug use is invaluable in counseling deaf teenagers about the effects of abuse. Woodward has provided a compendium for that area, too. Special collections of signs have been developed for teaching highly technical subjects, for use in medical emergency rooms, and for other specialized purposes.

Ameslan adds signs as spoken languages add words. New concepts arise, calling for distinctive ways to indicate them. Sometimes more than one sign emerges; for example, Woodward lists two ways to indicate that one is stoned. Ameslan sometimes borrows from English, as in the slang term reds for barbiturates. On other occasions, Ameslan uses abbreviated fingerspelling to signal a new idea, as for Quaaludes, in which the letter Q alone stands for that drug.

Puns may also gain standing. Some deaf teenagers use the sign for necktie to mean "Thai-stick." Over time that awkward pun may be modified to the point that its origin is lost but its meaning retained.

Source:  "Specialized Signs" from Speaking the Language of Sign by Jerome D. Schein, Ph.D. New York: Doubleday, 1984. pp. 25-26.

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