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Invention of New Signs: Why the aversion?

Why are so many people in the Deaf Community reluctant to invent signs for new concepts?
Vicars, William (04/28/2020) ""Aversion in the Deaf Community to the Invention of Signs" ASL University, web:

When people start to use a word very often (e.g. interpreters interpreting a specific subject), for which there is no sign yet, they often ask the Deaf client to create a sign for the word to make it easier than fingerspelling the word repeatedly. In online forums in the ASL world when someone asks how to sign a new concept often others respond with "just spell it." Where does this aversion for creating new signs come from? Is it because fingerspelling is able to "lexicalize" (mutate) into sign-like forms (articulatory bundles)?

Here are some thoughts regarding the question "Why is the Deaf Community against the invention of signs?"

Post-traumatic Hearing-person Invented Sign Fatigue:
The "invention" of signs has become somewhat sullied in the Deaf Community due to being equated with certain people (non-skilled signers, etc.) being lazy and looking for short-cuts "instead" of doing the hard work of developing their fingerspelling skills to a level beyond eye-stabbingly slow and/or actually learning ASL to a level where they can intuitively "develop" or "repurpose" existing signs.)  Additionally, the ASL sign INVENT can be inflected (modified / signed) negatively to mean such things as "farcical, absurd, made-up, or ridiculous." When someone who doesn't know a language at a native or near-native level "invents" a sign for a concept they are prone to (tend to) make egregious (shockingly bad) choices. For example it is amusingly common for Hearing people to think themselves clever for making up a sign for "Pinocchio" by tapping a "P" hand to the nose -- thus demonstrating an acute lack of familiarity regarding signs for male b o d y parts beginning with the letter "P." The amusement wears off quickly and we Deaf are left with the shock and trauma which after a while leads many to simply advise others to do the safe thing and "spell it."

Perhaps instead of using the term or sign "INVENT" when discussing the coining of new signs we might wish to use the sign DEVELOP -- which has little or negative inflection options and generally has only a positive connotation (perceived meaning). From a public relations point of view it when hanging out in certain online or in-person groups it may be wise to avoid triggering others with the term "invention" when discussing new signs and instead use the word "develop."

A great many ASL signers seem to subscribe to the sentiment (idea) often associated with "William of Occam"* that "The simplest solution is most likely the right one." To many signers the "simplest" way to deal with new words is to spell them. Problem solved. No pesky criticism, no revisions, no chance of being shown up by someone more clever than you with a more popular version of the sign than you. Just spell it. Easy and safe. (Cough.) Except the "problem" isn't solved -- it is just transferred to the laborious (excessive work) of needing to produce numerous small signs (in the form of fingerspelled letters) which is typically much less efficient than simply producing a single sign. Thus we have two opposing forces: The desire to be safe versus the desire to be efficient.

The Deaf Community largely subscribes to crab-like behavior in which if one crab starts climbing out of the basket the other crabs will reach up and pull the climber down. Similarly in the Deaf Community it may simply be ingrained behavior to pull down attempts at coining new signs. After all creation and invention are fun. If done well it garners (gets) acclaim (applause). When one person gets applause various others feel jealous. If you are the one doing the creating and inventing it means you are getting to have the fun and tell others "how to sign." People (in general) do not like being told what to do in regard to matters they feel just as qualified to do as you. Thus developing new signs involves risk and requires a type of bravery. It is akin (similar) to being an artist and putting your work on display.

Sometimes people buy something and later feel a sense of regret after having made the purchase. They may feel stuck with the product. They may wish they had chosen a better product but alas (shucks) it is too late because the product has been bought. In an effort to avoid buyer's remorse in the future such individuals may be reluctant to "buy" anything. This same effect likely influences some signers to be reluctant to commit to developing or learning a "new" sign that may later be mocked by others in an online group and/or replaced with a more depictive (looks like the concept) sign.

The word "homogeneous" means to "be the same" or "to be alike." The Deaf Community is not homogeneous. (We are not all the same.) Not all of the Deaf Community is against the invention of signs. It is worth considering "who" is against the invention of signs and why as well as who is supportive of the development of signs and why. For example those Deaf who are actively working in science, technology, engineering, mathematical, and artistic fields are generally quite receptive to inventing signs or repurposing existing signs. It is easy for people who don't have to spell something 20 times an hour to tell others to "just spell it" -- once. When you are on the front lines though and the one who has to do the spelling day after day, week after week it gets old fast and you become more amenable (open and responsive) to the idea of "coming up with a sign" for the new concept instead of spelling it each time.

Within the non-homogeneous (or in other words the large variety of people within the) Deaf Community we "do" find pockets of groups that do tend to think alike (as comparable to the same species of birds flocking together). If you hang out in groups that don't actively use emerging or technical words you will see resistance to innovative sign development. However, if you hang out in groups comprised of individuals who "do" actively work and interact in environments where new words are constantly emerging you will find much more acceptance to the idea of developing corresponding signs: For example, visit and note that there is a whole community of STEM folks actively discussing and proposing new signs or visual depictions of emerging or technical concepts.

Do the work then be brave.  Repeat.



* However it is likely a "myth" that Occam is the "originator" of "Occam's Razor."
Source: Thorburn, William (1918) "The Myth of Occam's Razor" Mind 27, 345-353; available from's_Razor

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