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The Myth that Titles and Proper Names are Always Spelled in ASL:

Wlliam G. Vicars, EdD, 2/2/2024


The Myth that Titles and Proper Names are Always Spelled in ASL

Allow me to share with you a direct quote from someone giving advice in an online ASL discussion group:
"Any book titles, song titles, anything with titles or proper names are always fingerspelled."

That is a myth.

Most students have learned by now that when the word "always" shows up as part of an answer option on a test -- it is usually a wrong answer. We should be cautious about claiming that Deaf people or the Deaf Community as a whole "always" do anything.

If you are Deaf and if you actually know ASL and if you actually interact with other Deaf in the Deaf community you know that we don't always spell out titles.

The reality is: It depends.

How you handle titles and proper names depends on context and your audience.

In real life, real Deaf people communicating with other real Deaf people in North American Deaf Language (ahem, real life ASL) -- tend to use a variety of techniques to efficiently convey information about titles and proper names.

For example, suppose you've been reading the book "At Night All Blood is Black."
In real life if your friend asks you what book you are reading you can generally just sign:

If you friend opens an internet search app and types:
book night all blood black
-- the first result (and the next half a dozen results as of 2024) all have to do with the book "At Night All Blood Is Black"

Suppose instead that we are in a Deaf Education classroom and discussing specific books and you are the teacher's assistant and the teacher wants you to write on the board "At Night All Blood Is Black."

Let's take an other example. Suppose you were reading "The Fellowship of the Ring," (the first book in what is often referred to as The Lord of the Rings trilogy). In real life if someone asks you what book you are reading and you can generally respond by signing:


-- the other person (if they know ASL and are at familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien's writing) instantly knows what book you are reading.

The simple fact is that everyday users of ASL are generally not going to waste time fingerspelling something that can be more quickly signed and still result in an acceptable level of understanding.

If you are communicating with a copy editor, graphic designer, typesetter, or some other cross-language bilingual circumstance such as participating in an English format spelling bee -- then sure, you'd better spell things out.

If you are chatting with a Deaf friend who you know is a bookworm and you spell out every title letter-by-letter -- you might soon notice that your friend is looking at you with an annoyed, impatient facial expression.

Pragmatic competence is the ability to use language effectively in various contexts (situations), adapting to social and cultural norms. It includes understanding things like idioms, metaphors, politeness, tone, and when it's appropriate to bend or break the rules of grammar and syntax for effect or to fit in with societal norms.

Online and in your classes you may find people or sources that will recite to you all sorts of grammatical rules that they read somewhere, their ASL teacher (who may not actually hang out in the Deaf Community) told them, or their (typically Hearing) interpreter claimed was the case -- but following those rules in every situation without paying attention to the context and your audience -- will result in you often being grammatically right but pragmatically (real life) incompetent.

Let's consider for a moment how English handles title case, which is commonly used for book titles, movie titles, and other similar titles.

English grammar rules can vary depending on the style guide being followed (such as APA, MLA, or Chicago), but generally English title case capitalizes major words and leaves smaller, less significant words in lowercase.

Typically, major words in the title, such as nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, are capitalized. However, smaller words, such as articles, conjunctions, and short prepositions (usually fewer than four letters), are usually not capitalized unless they are the first or last word in the title.

For example, the first "The" in "The Lord of the Rings" is capitalized (when using English title case) because the first word of a title is always capitalized, regardless of its part of speech or length. Later, in the title "The Lord of the Rings," the words "of the" fall into the category of smaller words that are generally not capitalized in titles. ("Of" is a short preposition and "the" is an article. That's why they are lowercase in the title.)

Our "The Lord of the Rings" example helps us see that the rule for English proper names and titles is more complex than just "capitalize all words" in a title.

Similarly way skilled ASL users handle ASL titles and proper names is more complex than just "spell out titles and proper names."

A short, pithy rule is quite simply inadequate to legitimately encapsulate how titles and proper names are handled in ASL.

The following list of suggested approaches to ASL titles and proper names is presented not as a rule but as a list of suggested approaches.

ASL titles and proper names suggested approaches:

1. The more important it is to be able to exactly translate a title back and forth from English to a signed modality -- the more likely you will need to fingerspell rather than use signs.

2. If the title involves concepts typically expressed by signs that have two or more possible English translations you are more likely to need to fingerspell those concepts.

3. If a signer prefers to not mouth words yet still wants to indicate specific English words it is more likely that the signer will choose to fingerspell those words.

4. The more common and well known a title is -- the less likely fingerspelling will be used if more efficient signs are available.

5. Titles in ASL will tend to transition from being spelled on first introduction to later being signed if the related signs are more efficient than fingerspelling.

6. Words in English titles that do not have common ASL equivalents are more likely to be spelled if it is important for the communication participants to eventually be able to produce or recognize the exact English title.

7. The more the same title is discussed in any one discussion or set of discussions, the more likely fingerspelled words in the title will become lexicalized (shortened / blended) or replaced by more efficient sign equivalents or near equivalents.

8. If the title is presented in visual form (such as a person holding up a book and the title is able to be read by the conversation partner or audience) the need for fingerspelling is lessened because the audience can see the exact English title and will associate reasonably close signed approximations as representing that exact English title.

9. The more the communication participants want to maintain access to or awareness of the English nuances and specificities -- the more likely fingerspelling will be used.

10. If a title originates in ASL (for example, if it is an ASL poem, play, or movie) it is more likely to consist of signs than of fingerspelling. A title may consist of multi-meaning signs or signs that out-of-context are untranslatable without listing numerous potential translations.

Examples, suggestions for additional suggested approaches, and other considerations:

(Feel free to post your ideas below.)

* Consideration: Actually fingerspelling is a series of individual signs (articulatory bundles of information consisting of a handshape, location, palm orientation, transitions, and a hold) typically referred to as "letters." So, when you are fingerspelling you are still "signing" (using signs) but for this discussion we will consider fingerspelling and signing to be separate visual modes of expression even though fingerspelling is a type of signing.




Also see: The myth of always needing to fingerspell brand names, proper nouns, and titles


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