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American Sign Language: "The Gender Morpheme"


Also see: "The gender sign" (discussion)

Note to readers:  Time passes.  Conventions change.  Language evolves.  Things that were written many years ago (such as the information below) will seem either odd or obvious as more and more time passes.  Often the best we can do is strive to be kind and courteous to the best of our ability with the information we have at the time while doing what we can to continue learning more information.


A student asked me about gender neutral signing.

Placement of certain signs near the forehead has traditionally been associated with a masculine form (boy, dad, brother, uncle, grandfather) and placement near the chin has traditionally conveyed the feminine form.

I asked my wife (Bee), "Why it is that all the male signs are up near the brain and all the female signs are down near the mouth?"

She informed me: "That's because men think they know what they are talking about but women really do."

Seriously though, the etymology (history) of this male/female location links back hundreds of years ago to head-gear.

Hats were traditionally worn by men whereas women typically wore "bonnets" that were tied under the chin. The current sign for BOY-(male) is based on the tipping of a hat. The sign for GIRL-(female) is based on the string of a bonnet running along the jaw line.

A student asked me, "What about "gender neutrality? How would we sign 'sibling?'"

I shared  this story with the student:

A number of years back a person who identified as being both male and female (an intersex person having both male and characteristics) in the Sacramento, California region showed me a sign for what they called "DA-MOM." (Which could also be labeled "DAD-MOM.") They and their partner used this sign in their home with their children. The sign consists of the traditional "5"-handshape but instead of doing it at the forehead or the chin it is done midway between the forehead and the chin (on the cheekbone). Thus their approach to gender neutrality was to use a neutral location for the sign.  Other's used the same approach.  Over time that sign has become a common way to refer to a parent in a non-binary way.

A similar approach is used for a gender-neutral version of "sibling" by starting the sign at the side of the side of the face midway between the forehead and chin.

By doing certain signs half-way between the "male" / "female" signing locations we effectively strip them of "gender."

For example, the sign for COUSIN is "gender-neutral." However, COUSIN can (in context) be signed higher or lower to add gender.

Thus we see "location" (or placement of a sign) functioning as a morpheme adding the meaning of "male" or "female."



Note: There is a sign that is common in Deaf churches wherein the phrase "brothers and sisters" is used frequently. The "BROTHERS-AND-SISTERS" sign (when done casually by a skilled signer) starts near the dominant-side-midpoint of the face (non-contact). The hand (in a modified "L"-handshape) moves downward/forward while changing to a formal-"G"-handshape, quickly moves back up to a position slightly below the original starting location (while changing into the original loose-"L" handshape) and then moves down/forward again to make contact with the non-dominant "1"-hand. The two concepts (BROTHER and SISTER) have become a single compound sign "BROTHER-SISTER" which, in context, carries the meaning of "brothers and sisters" -- which in further context actually means "congregants of this church" which is not specifically about male and female but rather about being members of a group that have feelings toward other members of that group as if they were siblings.

Note:  The more casually signs such as DAD, BROTHER, UNCLE, COUSIN, or SIBLINGS are done -- the lower (and further from the head) the starting location. Thus often you will see (advanced signers doing) the sign BROTHER starting off to the side of (and forward of) the face below the midpoint. Out of context the "advanced casual" version of the sign BROTHER could be misconstrued to mean "sister."


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