How Sign Language Works

It wasn't until the was developed and despite its co-existence alongside English, a user would be hard-pressed to sign with a British person. Find out about the independent evolution of sign language in the U.S. and how intuitively sensible it is.

Josh: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. With me as always is Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant, and there's Jeri, and the three of us together are Stuff You Should Know.

Chuck: Hey, buddy. Hey, how's it going?

Josh: It's going pretty good.

Chuck: I have to say, this was one of the better articles I have read in recent memory.

Josh: Wow.

Chuck: By Mr. Jonathan Strickland, our nemesis at Tech Stuff.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: He wrote a great article on sign language.

Josh: Arch nemesis, even.

Chuck: Who knew?

Josh: Yeah, I had no idea that he knew anything.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: It's like there's a, there's nothing about the future of sign language, and here it's just sign language.

Chuck: Yeah, and this is one of those where I knew really not much about it, and it was just a delight to learn, you know?

Josh: Yeah. And, uh, he basically just did American Sign Language.

Chuck: Yeah, sure.

Josh: Which I have the impression that if he had tried to expand it, it would've really gotten unwieldy quick. So it was a good editorial decision, good writing.

Chuck: Well, that's one of the things I didn't know. I didn't even know that, that there are hundreds of sign languages. I kinda thought it was all the same, but he makes a point, even, that you may be better, better able to communicate with someone speaking French sign language because that was the basis of American Sign Language.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Than to speak sign language if you're American with someone speaking British sign language.

Josh: Yeah, because it's just different. Sharing a common spoken language with another country does not mean -

Chuck: Has nothing to do with it.

Josh: That they're, that they share common sign languages.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: No, and that's a really good point because it reveals that the deaf community has over time just basically said, "We're gonna do this ourselves."

Chuck: Yeah, and it even gets to the point where regional dialects, just like a regular spoken language. It basically just is a regular language.

Josh: Well, right.

Chuck: And the more I read it, the more I was just like, "This is just like speaking English or speaking southern English or Midwestern English."

Josh: Sure.

Chuck: You know?

Josh: Yeah, and it, and you know, depending on your community, the community you're raised in, the type of house you were raised in, it, that's what will necessitate what kind of sign language you will learn or develop or -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Whatever.

Chuck: Pretty cool.

Josh: Yeah, it is. And let's talk about the history of this a little bit first.

Chuck: Okay.

Josh: So Chuck, you know, humans have a long and storied history of mistreating groups that are different from everybody else.

Chuck: It's what makes America great.

Josh: Not just America. It goes back even further than that.

Chuck: Humanity.

Josh: The, the deaf community, up until shamefully recently, were kind of one of those groups that were just kind of mistreated.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: The Torah, for example, forbids deaf people from fully participating in some of the rituals in the temple. The ancient Greeks wouldn't allow deaf people to be educated. Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine, he's a saint, for goodness sake.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: He taught that deaf people were evidence that God was angry at their parents.

Chuck: Wow.

Josh: Yeah. It wasn't until about the Renaissance that anybody finally took a stab at educating deaf people.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And they found pretty quickly that "Oh, they just can't hear."

Chuck: Right.

Josh: That's the thing.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: They can learn very quickly and just like you and me. So that kind of became the springboard, once people figured out that you can educate deaf people, to them being included more into normal society.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: But for a long time, they were mistreated. And as a result, I think they kind of - well, I'm speculating here, but I think they kind of said, "We're gonna handle this ourselves." Like I said.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: Like "We're gonna develop our own language."

Chuck: Take matters into our own hands, literally. Yeah.

Josh: Yeah. And that's where sign languages started to come from. Just necessity is the mother of invention.

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: You need to be able to communicate with people around you, and so sign language developed in communities where there were deaf people who were accepted and not just kind of put to the side.

Chuck: Yeah, before it was even, they were getting official with it, people were using sign language.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Because they were like "Well, I don't care if you're gonna make it some official language or not, we need to talk to each other."

Josh: Exactly. So we're gonna figure it out. And not only do they need to talk to each other, they need to talk to the community at large as well.

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: And there is actually this really cool story. On Martha's Vineyard there was up to a quarter of the population, when they moved over here from England, they were an isolated population, so their, they suffered what was called a founders' effect, where the population just kinda bottlenecked.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And these families intermarried.

Chuck: Ah.

Josh: But they didn't marry outside of their group.

Chuck: Yeah, yeah.

Josh: So deafness, hereditary deafness, was a, a trait that was passed along the group, so up to a quarter, one in four people in this community, were deaf.

Chuck: Really.

Josh: Right. As a result of this community on Martha's Vineyard in the early 18th century having up to a quarter of its population deaf, a specific type of sign language called Martha's Vineyard sign language -

Chuck: Shut up.

Josh: Developed, and not only were the deaf in the community proficient in it, everybody in the community was proficient in it.

Chuck: Wow.

Josh: And up until 1952, when the last deaf Martha's Vineyard resident, Martha's Vineyard-born resident, died, that's when it became extinct.

Chuck: Wow.

Josh: So they were practicing it from about 1700 to 1952, and apparently Oliver Sacks went and interviewed some of these people for part of a book.

Chuck: Man, he's always on it.

Josh: He is.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And he's, he reported that some of these elders, these Martha's Vineyard elders -

Chuck: Uh-huh.

Josh: Reverted to sign language while they were talking, and so they were coming in and out of speech and sign language.

Chuck: Wow.

Josh: And apparently weren't even aware that they were doing it.

Chuck: That's awesome.

Josh: And they were not deaf.

Chuck: That might be the fact of the show.

Josh: Martha's Vineyard sign language?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: It could be one of them. I think there's a bunch in here.

Chuck: Yeah, agreed. So if we're talking about history, we have to go back to the early 1800s, to a dude named Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. And he was a minister of, to the deaf, and he went to Europe because like we said, in France is where it sort of originated officially, and he wanted to learn some techniques on how to teach this stuff. Met a guy named Roch Ambroise Cucurron Sicard, who was an abbe.

Josh: Abbe Sicard.

Chuck: Yeah, it's a title. He's like a clergyman.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: He was the director of the School of the Deaf in Paris, and he learned some stuff from him, and then plucked one of his students, Laurent Clerc, and said "Hey, there's big money in this. Let's go start a school in the United States."

Josh: Mm-hm.

Chuck: That probably wasn't his motivation. I hope not, although you never know. Nothing wrong with making a little money by starting a school.

Josh: Sure.

Chuck: So they established the American School for the Deaf in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut, and went on - like they incorporated what they learned in France with what was already going on in the United States.

Josh: Right, which is why, like you said, if you are an American Sign Language speaker and you go to France -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And you're speaking with a French sign language speaker, you'll probably be successful.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Because American Sign Language is partially rooted in French sign language.

Chuck: Yeah. More so than, like, going to England.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: It's just so weird to think about.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: And they ended up founding as well Gallaudet University in D.C. Go Bisons.

Josh: Is that right?

Chuck: Yeah. They got a football team.

Josh: I played for the Beverly Bisons in elementary school.

Chuck: Really?

Josh: I'm a Bison.

Chuck: It's pretty cool, though. They got a football team, all deaf and, or hard of hearing, and it's cool to watch the video. Like, you know, the coach is giving like the motivational speech, and he's signing at the same time.

Josh: Uh-huh.

Chuck: And it's, I don't know, I just think it's kind of neat.

Josh: That is cool.

Chuck: And I thought about this, too. Probably not affected by home field advantage or not.

Josh: Oh, the noise?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: I wonder, though, like the trembly-ness of it. Of, of that much just sound.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: The sound waves. The physical waves hitting you.

Chuck: Well, but - yeah, true, but it's not the same as, you know, NFL teams when they go to visit like Seattle. They have, they work out all these sign language for each other.

Josh: Oh, I see what you mean.

Chuck: You know what I'm saying?

Josh: I thought you meant getting psyched out by, like, the crowd noise.

Chuck: No, I mean like not being able to hear -

Josh: Sure.

Chuck: When you're like changing a play at the line of scrimmage.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: They use signs, and these guys are like, "Dude." [Inaudible]

Josh: Yeah. They're just using ASL or something.

Chuck: So anyway, go Bisons. And that is a school of more than 1,500 students today, although they are not all deaf. About five percent may consist of hearing students, which I thought was interesting. Because I guess it's just, you know, it's a good school.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: You know?

Josh: And it says here in the article that there was a controversy among the students and some of the faculty. I looked it up, and apparently there was an incoming president in like the mid-2000s -

Chuck: Uh-huh.

Josh: Who was born deaf but had been raised to, to speak -

Chuck: Uh-huh.

Josh: Rather than sign. And apparently most of the students were not very happy about that.

Chuck: Really?

Josh: Because they didn't think she was planning on emphasizing sign language.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: They wanted to make sure that sign language was like the, the main method of communication.

Chuck: Yeah. Interesting.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: So like we said, we're gonna be talking about ASL, mainly, which has its own grammar and syntax and phonology, which if you're talking about speaking, it's the study of sounds. If you're talking about signing, it is the hand movements and signals and motions.

Josh: Phonology?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Yeah, it's the, it's how - in the '60s, some researcher discovered that sign language isn't made up of a distinct sign for everything.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: That there's a discrete set of hand gestures.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Movements that you can change and alter to make different words or concepts.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And that would be phonology, right?

Chuck: Yeah. It's kinda like - I don't think we pointed out, sign language, American Sign Language, is not literally trying to translate each word someone speaks. It's about the concept and getting the point across of what someone is saying.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: And we'll get into that. It'll make more sense in a minute.

Josh: So, but that's phonology, and phonology -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: As far as speech goes, it would be syllables. This is -

Chuck: Yeah, the study of sounds.

Josh: This is like hand, like a gesture, whatever.

Chuck: Yes.

Josh: Okay.

Chuck: And morphology, which if you're speaking, that is how words are formed from basic sounds, and in sign language, that's the way your hand and motions represent the concepts.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Okay. Does that make sense?

Josh: Yeah. And you were saying that American Sign Language does not follow English, necessarily. It, it doesn't follow English.

Chuck: Yeah, in fact they try to avoid sounding like English.

Josh: Yeah, like they abandoned English syntax.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: They, there's no use of the word "am" or "be." It's pretty simple and straightforward. And some of the stuff also are, some of the signs are conceptual, like there are some that are symbolic, but some are, like, a concept or an icon, I guess is a better way to put it.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Like if you are doing "deer," saying the word "deer," signing the word "deer."

Chuck: Yeah. D-E-E-R.

Josh: Yes.

Chuck: The animal.

Josh: You put your, you stick your fingers up and put them close to your head.

Chuck: Like antlers. Right, yeah.

Josh: So I was curious, like how you would sign the word "moose."

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And I looked.

Chuck: What is it?

Josh: It's the same thing, but rather than having them up against your head, they're out off to the side a little bit.

Chuck: Okay.

Josh: Because the moose has, like, antlers that are bigger than a deer.

Chuck: Well, and that illustrates a very important point with ASL. It's not just the things, the signs you make with your hands. It's body language, expressions, and the space, how you use the space around you. Like to take the antlers away from your head represents something. And as we'll learn later, where you hold your hands represent different things, like further away from your body or closer to your body. And we'll get to all that.

But basic nuts and bolts, they are, you can call them speakers even though they're signing, but generally you call the person receiving the sign at the time the receiver.

Josh: The person being spoken to.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Okay.

Chuck: And the receiver, if you are a receiver, you don't just stare at the hands. In fact, you don't focus on the hands at all, you focus on their face and sort of keep the hands in the periphery.

Josh: That's how the - remember the - did you hear about the guy who was signing at Mandela's memorial service?

Chuck: Yeah, I thought that was gonna be your intro, actually. I just guessed.

Josh: I went with the mistreating people intro instead.

Chuck: No, I like that.

Josh: The, yeah, this guy was a fraudulent sign translator.

Chuck: Now, was he really? Did they get - because I thought he was like, "No, I'm not fraudulent, I'm just" -

Josh: No, he's a fraud.

Chuck: Oh, okay.

Josh: He - what's unclear is, so he was, he's a, he suffers from schizophrenia.

Chuck: Uh-huh.

Josh: And he was hired on officially to do this, and they think that the way he was hired was because his rate was about half of what a normal sign translator would've been.

Chuck: That - red flag. Yeah.

Josh: So they basically just went with the cheaper option.

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: And didn't do their due diligence and, and figure him out. Because he'd actually done this before, where he doesn't know sign language.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And a, apparently he has no malicious intent or anything like that. I don't know if he just needed money.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Or if he thinks he knows sign language or if he wants to know sign language or he feels like he can get it across. But during Mandela's funeral, he was doing all this sign language, and it was total nonsense.

Chuck: So none of it was real at all?

Josh: No, it was -

Chuck: Wow.

Josh: Utter gibberish.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And one of the, one of the ways that the, the deaf community, who were understandably upset at all this -

Chuck: I bet some of them got a good laugh.

Josh: Sure. But overall -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: They said, "If you're doing sign, you don't just sit there with like a stone face," which this guy was doing. He was all hand gestures.

Chuck: Oh, yeah.

Josh: And the hand gestures didn't mean anything.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: But then also, you express most of sign language with expressions, with facial expressions, with movement.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: You don't just stand there because it doesn't do anything. You're not getting your point across.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: So this guy, one of the ways that he was found out -

Chuck: Was the fact that he was like stone-faced?

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Wow.

Josh: And if you go and look at it, he's not moving his face at all. Like he's completely -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Solemn.

Chuck: He was found out pretty quick, too.

Josh: Yeah, because I'm sure there were people watching -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Who were like, "What? This - what's going on? This guy is talking gibberish."

Chuck: It's so weird.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: If you were signing actions, a lot of times, but not always, you just mimic the action. Like Strickland points out, if you want to sign "eat," you hold your finger and thumb like you're holding like a little piece of chocolate, and you go to put it in your mouth.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: And that means eat.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Pretty straightforward.

Josh: And there, there's also something I think is kinda neat and efficient about sign language, is that the same, that same sign for "eat" -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Is, doubles for other signs, too, depending on what you do with it.

Chuck: Yeah, can get confusing.

Josh: It can, but it's also, it's, it's - I don't know. I like - it makes, it makes the whole thing more elegant to me, that one sign, when delivered in a certain way, changes the meaning, and you really have to pay attention.

Chuck: Yeah. For instance, if you want to sign "food," it is the same - a lot of times you will double a sign to indicate something else.

Josh: To indicate a noun.

Chuck: Well, it depends. That's why it can get confusing. So the sign for "food" is the same as doubling the sign for "eat," but if you want to sign "eating," which is a verb, you would also repeat the "eat" sign. So that's where if you're receiving sign language, you understand it, it's all about your context. You're not gonna be like, "What are you talking about?"

Josh: Yeah. What do you mean you guys went out and you were "food?"

Chuck: Yeah, exactly.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: I should teach you sign language. That would be fun.

Josh: But al -

Chuck: But I'd need to learn it first, but -

Josh: Apparently also the, the, the verbs or action words -

Chuck: Uh-huh.

Josh: Or signs, are, are bigger.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: Whereas nouns are smaller.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: Like the gestures are bigger or smaller depending on whether it's a noun or a verb, too.

Chuck: That's true.

Josh: That's, that's another way. So again, you can't just sit there with your hands directly in front of you moving within a very small box.

Chuck: Yeah, yeah.

Josh: It's, you, you wouldn't be speaking. At least as far as American Sign Language goes, you wouldn't be speaking correctly.

Chuck: That's true. There is an alphabet, too, as every 13-year-old girl knows.

Josh: All right, why?

Chuck: I - don't you remember that? Like it seems like in, like, the seventh grade, every girl I knew went through a phase where they learned the sign alphabet and would like spell out things with their friends that no one else knew what they were talking about.

Josh: What?

Chuck: You never saw that?

Josh: No.

Chuck: Oh, man.

Josh: I remember the big, bubbly, cursive writing.

Chuck: With the rainbow pen?

Josh: With those pens with the different - yeah.

Chuck: Yeah, I just seem to remember a lot of young girls learning the sign language alphabet, and they would sit around and spell things about people, and I don't know.

Josh: Huh. Had not run into that.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Not in Toledo.

Chuck: Maybe it was a Georgia thing.

Josh: Maybe.

Chuck: So anyway, there is an alphabet, which actually where you, you know, it's called finger spelling. But it's only used to illustrate a really specific concept or to indicate like a person.

Josh: Spell a name?

Chuck: Yeah, like if you're gonna be telling a story about Josh, all you gotta do is spell out "Josh" at the beginning, and then you don't have to keep doing it over and over.

Josh: Right. One way to do that, too, especially if I'm not present, is to indicate an empty space by you.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Spell out my name, point to that empty space, and then from that point on, anytime you point at the empty space -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: You're saying "Josh."

Chuck: Yeah. If you're there, it's called indexing. Use your finger, you just point to Josh. Yeah, if you're not there, you just make an imaginary Josh.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: And you keep pointing to that space.

Josh: To refer to Josh.

Chuck: It's pretty cool.

Josh: Another reason that you would use finger spelling would be to ask somebody what a sign was to ask somebody what a sign was for something you couldn't remember. So if you're saying something, you, you, and you couldn't think of "moose," you might spell out in finger spelling, "What's the sign for moose?"

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And then they would say, "Hey, fingers up, away from the head."

Chuck: Yeah, I wrote a, or I read a article from the Washington Post earlier about Washington, D.C., they call them "terps," interpreters. Which is -

Josh: Oh, I hadn't heard that.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Are you sure they weren't talking about University of Maryland?

Chuck: No, they were talking about terps. But it's a big deal in D.C. There's like, on any given day there's like 1,500 people in D.C. signing for clients.

Josh: Shoot, I could see that.

Chuck: Yeah, of course. It makes sense because it's law, first of all. Federal law requires reasonable accommodation for a deaf person.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: But this one guy that they interviewed, what's his name? Painter. He said that spelling is your, your, like, your back door.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Like if every - and it's, it's tough in D.C. because he was like, "Basically try signing a speech by Bernanke when they're saying, like, very D.C.-specific political jargon."

Josh: Uh-huh.

Chuck: That may, you know, maybe not have a concept you can represent, like "fiscal cliff," or "it's not your first rodeo," or "kick it down the road a little bit."

And so they basically have invented political jargon -

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: For people that do that. And he said or, if you get stuck, you can always just spell it.

Josh: And that appears to be a hallmark of sign language, is there, like, new signs are created all the time.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Just like new words are created all the time. And just like with speech, there are prescriptivists and there's descriptivists. Like people who say "No, American Sign Language is sacrosanct, it is what it is, it's not to be added to. If you add to it, it dilutes the language. Go come up with your own language if you want to add 'fiscal cliff' to it."

And then there's other people who are descriptivists who say, "No, a language is a living, breathing, evolving thing."

Chuck: Right.

Josh: And like "We need to get the concept of 'fiscal cliff' along, across."

Chuck: Right.

Josh: So here it is. It looks like "moose," kinda.

Chuck: I would just do a little guy walking, then falling off a cliff.

Josh: Sure.

Chuck: You know?

Josh: Sure, and then making a dollar sign.

Chuck: If you have seen people do sign language and you see them looking upset or puffing their cheeks out or raising their eyebrows, they're indicating an inflection. That's what's called a non-manual marker. So like if you wanted to ask someone a - and that's also true with punctuation - if you wanted to - you could do the little question mark sign, but more likely you would just say the sentence and then raise your eyebrows.

Josh: Right. Well, give them an example. Like movies. "Do you like the movies?"

Chuck: Right. You would say, "You like movies" -

Josh: And then raise your eyebrows, like "Huh?"

Chuck: Yeah, basically like a Russian. Yakov Smirnoff. "You like movies?" That's basically what's going on there.

Josh: Any Yakov Smirnoff reference is hilarious. It doesn't matter what it is. Did you ever see that King of the Hill that he co-starred on?

Chuck: No way.

Josh: They go to Branton. And like he -

Chuck: Uh-huh.

Josh: I think Bobby like ends up hanging out with him.

Chuck: Really?

Josh: Yeah, it's pretty awesome.

Chuck: Another way you can modify a sign, there's basically a couple of ways you can modify action, is by directionalizing. So if you, you know, had a nice leisurely meal, you would do the symbols for, or the signs for "eating" very slowly. If you want to tell someone I had to woof it down real quick because I was late for a meeting, you would just do the signs for "eating" very fast. It's pretty easy.

Josh: Yes.

Chuck: Or if you wanted to say "I'm gonna give a gift to you," you would just do the signs for "give gift" and then, you know, indicate that I'm giving it to you.

Josh: Right. Or to -

Chuck: Or someone else.

Josh: The direction of it -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Is going from I to you, so it's implied right there, "give gift" is going from I to you. I give you a gift.

Chuck: It really cuts through all the jibber-jabber. I kinda like it. You know?

Josh: Yeah, it really does. And there's also rules with syntax that are just totally out the window in relation to English, too. It's, there's something called the topic of the sentence, and that's frequently a pronoun, like "I."

Chuck: Right.

Josh: And it genuinely doesn't matter where that goes. It can go at the beginning of the sentence, the end of the sentence, or both. And I haven't figured out where "I," where both comes from. Why you would say the pronoun twice. So for example, like "I am an employee here," right?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: You would just say "I employee" or "Employee I."

Chuck: Right.

Josh: Or "I employee I." And I can't figure out, hopefully somebody out there can let us know why you would want to say, what the purpose is for saying it twice.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: But it's, it's allowable, structure-wise.

Chuck: Interesting. Yeah. So within that structure, I think you said it was topic, comment, structure. Generally the comment is the predicate. So -

Josh: Man, this took me like down memory lane.

Chuck: Yeah. I was like, "What's a predicate again?"

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: It says something about the topic or the object, if you were talking about English. And then there's the tense, of course. If you want to talk about when something happened -

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: You can do it in a variety of ways. But generally you would announce the tense at the beginning, and then you wouldn't have to keep saying it over and over, that you're like speaking in the past tense.

Josh: Right. Until you say, until you change tense.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: So you would start by saying "Yesterday," and then you would start talking about how you went to the store and you saw this Trans-Am, and you were like "Hey, that's a great Trans-Am to the guy," and he said "Thanks a lot." And, but then today, so then you'd sign "today," "I saw the Trans-Am again, and it had gotten in a fender bender."

Chuck: Right.

Josh: "And it was sad."

Chuck: Right.

Josh: So in, in the middle you have, you have signed "today."

Chuck: Oh, okay, I see.

Josh: And it's changed tense.

Chuck: Yeah, yeah.

Josh: So the tense is - it's, this is something you have to pay attention to. Like sign language, American Sign Language relies on you to be a smart, non-lazy person.

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: Because you have to pay attention. You have to keep up with what you're saying, so you can't just, you know, drift off or, you know, just start staring into the middle focus, you know?

Chuck: Right.

Josh: Like you have to be paying attention, and it's not just because you're watching the signs or anything like that. Like it can change and switch very suddenly.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Going from yesterday to today, and then everything after that stays the same, and you have to look for a change in tense so you don't miss it and get confused.

Chuck: Yeah. And they're quick, too.

Josh: And, and it relies on you to understand context as well. So for example, you, if you were saying, "I had lunch today" -

Chuck: Yes.

Josh: "I went out for lunch today."

Chuck: You can't even speak it in English.

Josh: Right. "I went out for lunch this afternoon."

Chuck: Okay.

Josh: Okay?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: You would say, "Today I go to lunch," is what you would say in sign language. And depending on when you were saying it, the person, the receiver would know what you were talking about. If you were talking about it in the morning -

Chuck: Right.

Josh: They would know "Oh, you're going out to lunch this afternoon." Or if you were talking to them that night, they would know "Oh, well, you're saying you went to lunch already this afternoon."

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Not you're going to. You already went.

Chuck: Right, right.

Josh: It's all context as well.

Chuck: Yeah. Like you said earlier, you won't get confused if you're, if you're understanding what they're saying.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Like I said, makes total sense, doesn't it?

Josh: It really does. It's, it's, it's smart.

Chuck: Yeah. We talked about using the space. If you sign close to the body, it might have been something that happened recently or it might happen soon. If you sign further out, maybe it's something that happened a long time ago, or it might happen way far in the future.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Again, super interesting and smart.

Josh: And that kinda runs into the calendar that some synesthetes report around them all the time.

Chuck: I thought of that same thing.

Josh: Didn't it make you think of that?

Chuck: Totally.

Josh: I wonder if Strickland did that on purpose? He is an evil genius.

Chuck: All right, so I think maybe we should take a message break, and then get to the etiquette of sign language.


Chuck: All right.

Josh: Chuck, were you gonna talk about -

Chuck: Mr. Manners.

Josh: Etiquette?

Chuck: Yes, there is etiquette, like with regular speaking language. You need to wait for the speaker to finish signing, and then they'll look at you and say it's your turn to speak. If they look away, they're still talking or signing, you know what I'm saying?

Josh: I know what you're saying.

Chuck: So don't take that as your cue to jump in there. In fact, that can be rude. They will actually give you the signal that it's, it's time for you to respond.

Josh: Right. But if you watch two people who are signing with one another kind of frantically -

Chuck: Yeah, like arguing.

Josh: Yeah. The, they, that's one - as a tactic in an argument using sign language, you don't wait until the person stops and points to you. You could just cut in, and what you're doing is interrupting them.

Chuck: Interesting.

Josh: Yeah. Another thing that you, that might happen if you are a receiver of sign language, is the person signing might suddenly turn and start signing to somebody who isn't there.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: So you're not supposed to take a couple steps over, right?

Chuck: Right. Yeah.

Josh: They, they know where you're standing.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: What they're saying is that they, they're basically saying like, "And then I was talking to Todd."

Chuck: Right.

Josh: And this is Todd all of a sudden. "This is what I was saying to Todd."

Chuck: Right.

Josh: Right? So they're not, they're not addressing - they're addressing you still, but they're talking about how, what they said to Todd.

Chuck: Yeah, or what Todd said. If Todd said that he has a sore back, you would look at the imaginary Todd and say - I don't know what you would say. Probably "back sore."

Josh: Sure.

Chuck: Or "sore back."

Josh: But the, the, the, the proper etiquette there is to just keep watching their, their facial expressions -

Chuck: Right.

Josh: And gestures, just like they are talking to you.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: You don't just wander off.

Chuck: Right. If you see, if you have nothing to do with any of this and you just see two people signing on the street, they say, according to Dr. Bill Vickers, who owns a company - I'm sorry, is president of a company that creates sign language programs, he said it's not rude to walk between them if you just kinda just walk quickly between them and like it's no big deal. So there's that.

Josh: Right, but you don't want to be like, "Oh, I'm so sorry."

Chuck: Yeah, right.

Josh: "Sorry, everybody. You see me, I'm about to walk through here."

Chuck: Yeah, yeah.

Josh: So you just go through.

Chuck: Yeah. Or I would say just go around, if you can. That's Chuck's recommendation. Go around, you know? Like I wouldn't walk between two people having a conversation, either.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: A speaking conversation, unless I absolutely had to.

Josh: Yeah, I, I thought that was a little rude too, but apparently -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Deaf people are cool with it.

Chuck: All right. So good to know.

Josh: So Chuck, we talked about American Sign Language, and obviously that's far from the only sign language in the world.

Chuck: There's hundreds.

Josh: But in the States, American Sign Language is the dominant sign language.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: But there's other types of sign languages that are also practiced enough to warrant mentioning here.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: One is Signed Exact English.

Chuck: Man, this sounds tough.

Josh: It, it is. Because it's slow. One of the advantages of American Sign Language is that it gets rid of a lot of the crud.

Chuck: Yeah, yeah.

Josh: So like you just say, "Give gift."

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And by the direction you're moving, you get the point across that "I give you a gift."

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: All of these other things that you can do with the gesture, you're cutting out two, three, four words in a sentence. [Inaudible] like that.

Chuck: This whole thing made me feel like I waste a lot of words.

Josh: We do.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Especially in English.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: English is a very strange, technically difficult language.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And American Sign Language gets rid of a lot of that stuff.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Or I should say it doesn't get rid of it, it evolved without that stuff.

Chuck: Yeah, that's a better way to say it.

Josh: And Signed Exact English is like trying to literally get English across, and all of its weird syntax and order and "am" and "be" and "is" using sign language, so it's, it can be very slow.

Chuck: Yeah, like in ASL, if you wanted to sign "beautiful," that could mean "pretty, beautiful, lovely to look at." But they get specific with Signed Exact English. You would actually, if you wanted to say someone was pretty and not beautiful, you might sign the letter P and then the sign, the ASL sign for beautiful.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Which I guess is, you know, if you're being set up on a date, you might want to get specific, you know?

Josh: Right, you -

Chuck: Like is she pretty?

Josh: You said she was beautiful. No, I said she was lovely. Man.

Chuck: What's the sign for "good personality?" And, and Strickland points out that hearing teachers who interact with deaf children prefer Signed Exact English to ASL because I guess just when you're at that stage in life, to match up with the English spoken language, they think that has some benefit.

Josh: Well yeah, there's a, I guess one way of looking at educating deaf children -

Chuck: Uh-huh.

Josh: Is this whole immersed education.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Where it's like you learn speech -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Reading, which - lip reading.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: You learn sign language.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: You learn to speak. You learn -

Chuck: Finger spelling.

Josh: Right. You learn reading.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Because that's another thing, too. If you just are raised on American Sign Language, you're gonna have trouble reading English.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Because you're gonna, you're gonna say, "What is 'be'? What is 'is'"?

Chuck: Right.

Josh: "What are all these extra words?"

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: "What's with the syntax?" It's not gonna make sense. So there is definitely a school of thought among educators that if you have a deaf kid, you, they should learn everything.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Including sign language, but also all the other stuff, so they can effectively communicate with non-sign language, non-signers.

Chuck: Right. And that's opposed, as opposed to someone who loses their hearing later in life?

Josh: No, I think that's opposed to people who think, like, "Well, we're a deaf community and sign language is enough for us."

Chuck: Oh, okay.

Josh: "We don't have to know how to speak. We, like - why doesn't, why don't hearing kids learn sign language?"

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: "Why is it on us that we have to learn all this extra stuff?"

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: "Why is there not a balance?"

Chuck: Right.

Josh: So I think that that's part, I think those are two camps. I don't know if it's the whole thing, but -

Chuck: Gotcha.

Josh: I think some people think you should learn everything, where other people are like, "Well, sign language is good enough."

Chuck: Right.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Interesting. Well, there's one more we'll get to in a second called Pidgin Signed English, right after this message break.


Chuck: All right, so Pidgin Signed English, which is what we were talking about, is the other common form of sign language in the United States. And I don't fully understand this one, do you?

Josh: It seems to be the middle ground between Signed -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Exact English and American Sign Language.

Chuck: So they try to follow English syntax, but it's -

Josh: But they don't have, like, "be."

Chuck: Okay.

Josh: So there wouldn't, so there wouldn't be, like, like "I give you a gift."

Chuck: Right.

Josh: It might just be like "I give you gift."

Chuck: Okay.

Josh: You know?

Chuck: Yeah, yeah. That makes more sense.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: They, they do not require in Pidgin Signed English prefixes and suffixes like they do in SEE, and it, they say it can be easier to learn than either one of the other two versions because it does match up with English syntax.

Josh: Yeah, and if you, if you're one of those educators who thinks that kids should learn everything -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: You would be teaching SEE or, I imagine, at least Pidgin Signed.

Chuck: Yeah, and they say you can speak out loud and sign at the same time easier because you're not gonna get ahead or fall behind. Because it'll match up more.

Josh: Yep.

Chuck: Makes sense.

Josh: And then there's, there's a push - because like we said, if you, if you're deaf and a speaker of American Sign Language and you go to Great Britain, like you're gonna have trouble communicating, just like an English speaker would have in France.

Chuck: Yeah. What's a gah-rahge? Or a lift?

Josh: So, so there was this push in the mid-20th century to create an international sign language.

Chuck: Yeah, that's what I thought everything was.

Josh: And the, the inter - yeah, I, I kinda did too.

Chuck: Yeah, I was very naïve about all this.

Josh: Yeah, same here. The American, or, international sign language was, it came out of the, the world congress of the World Federation of the Deaf from 1951. They said, "Let's do this." And then 22 years later, they got around to doing it.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And they created something called Gestuno. You should say it.

Chuck: Gestuno.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And it, that, it's an Italian word that means "unified sign language," appropriately enough.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And I think Strickland says it's very much like the spoken language Esperanto.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: It exists, some people know it, but it is very far from an international language.

Chuck: Yeah, I looked a little more into it. I think they use it at international meetings because they kind of probably have to, and they say it can be useful for like world travelers to pick up. I guess just like you would visit another country to pick up some phrases and things.

Josh: Gotcha.

Chuck: To help you out.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: But yeah, it sounds like it's far from codified.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Do you say cod-ified or code-ified?

Josh: Cod-ified.

Chuck: You do?

Josh: Cod.

Chuck: All right.

Josh: And then there's babies speaking sign language, and I want to say if you want to see a creepy picture of a baby, check out this article on, "How Sign Language Works."

Chuck: I missed that.

Josh: On the last page, the baby sign language page, there's a picture of a baby signing, and it's staring right at the camera. It looks way too young to, like, be thinking the things it's obviously thinking. Murderous thoughts.

Chuck: He looks like he's doing karate to me.

Josh: But look at his face, though.

Chuck: Yeah, sinister.

Josh: It's like that is a scary kid. Sinister. It's a great word. So that is a baby sign language page.

Chuck: Well yeah, there's a school of thought that if you start your baby out before they can speak English words or whatever words, that you are gonna get them ahead in life by signing things that they need, like teach them the sign for "hungry" or "pee-pee" or "Daddy" or "Mommy."

Josh: Right.

Chuck: And they say at about six months, kids can start picking this stuff up and learn like dozens of words.

Josh: Yeah, they can learn it at six months, but it might take a couple months before they start signing in return, but they're still absorbing it.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And like you said, they learn obvious words that have meaning to them in their life.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: But apparently a lot of parents report that their kids, once they figure out what they're doing, that they're communicating, they want to learn more and more and more.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Which is pretty cool.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And there was a little bit of concern when this was first introduced that kids who were learning sign language would become deficient in speech.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: And they did a study, and they found no, actually the exact opposite is true. Like kids who are learning sign language as babies are, have better speech abilities and language abilities than their peers who didn't learn it.

Chuck: Interesting.

Josh: That's at least one, one study found. But these same researchers recommend that if you're teaching your kid sign language - which I didn't know it was a thing, but Yumi and I went to go visit a friend of hers -

Chuck: You didn't know it was a thing?

Josh: And like they started signing to their baby.

Chuck: You're like -

Josh: And I was like, "What is going on?"

Chuck: Is your kid deaf?

Josh: Yeah, kinda.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And apparently it's a thing.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: I didn't realize it.

Chuck: I had, I had seen it before.

Josh: But they're saying if you teach your kid, your hearing child -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Sign language, speak the word as well so the kid comes to understand that -

Chuck: Right.

Josh: Speaking and signing are, they're saying the same thing.

Chuck: Okay. That makes sense.

Josh: So there's not, there's not a reliance on just one or the other, I guess.

Chuck: Yeah. I'm glad to know that it does lead to better speech maybe later on because when I first saw people doing that, it was kinda like I was one of those doubters.

Josh: Oh yeah?

Chuck: It was like, "Come on. What are you doing? Really?"

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: But now I get it.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: It makes sense.

Josh: Plus it's kind of cool, like if your kid, if you can get your seven-month-old kid to sign things to you -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: It's almost like the same thing, but on the opposite end of the timeline, of getting messages from the grave, you know? Like babies can't talk for a reason.

Chuck: Yeah, yeah.

Josh: I think they know stuff -

Chuck: Interesting.

Josh: That they're not supposed to know, you know?

Chuck: Yeah. So if your baby does the sign for Area 51, you're in trouble.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: I got one more little fun thing. I was talking about the guy in D.C. Painter is his last name. He said that a lot of times they'll be hired because they have to get hired, you know, to, under federal law, but there won't be anyone there that's hard to hearing.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: But they still have to stand up there and sign. And he calls that, and the terps apparently call that "air guitar."

Josh: That's awesome.

Chuck: I thought that's pretty good.

Josh: Yep. Cool. So sign language.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: If you have a friend who is deaf or hard of hearing and is a sign language person, a signer, I guess, and you want to ask them how we did, if you go onto and go to the page for this episode, it will have a full transcript for it, too, so everybody can check it out.

And if you want to know more about this article, see the scary, scary baby, you can type in "Sign Language" on, and it will bring up Strickland's article.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: So there's two web sites for you to go to. and

Chuck: Boom.

Josh: And since I said two web sites, it's time for listener mail.

Chuck: I'm gonna call this HIV. "Hey guys, I recently went to visit family in Louisiana for Christmas break from San Francisco, and during a conversation with a quote 'friend' from high school, I mentioned the fact that I had recently started my medication for HIV/AIDS. And this quote 'friend' end quote became visible uncomfortable and clearly was looking for an excuse to leave. I received a text later where I was accused of endangering his life by not immediately disclosing my status, with him giving examples of risky behavior like 'What if I had drank after you, or some microscopic speck of your spit had gotten on my face?'"

2013, '14 now, and this is what's going on still.

Josh: Have you seen Dallas Buyers Club yet?

Chuck: No, I can't wait.

Josh: It's a good movie.

Chuck: "It was a stark reminder, guys, of just how little people know still about how HIV works. Not only are neither of those things a possible vector of transmission, but modern medication can so effectively eradicate HIV from your blood and semen that you're practically not even contagious anymore, reducing the risk by as much as 99.9 percent.

"I had end age AIDS in May, and by August, my viral load was undetectable, and my T-cell count was normal. But there complications with medication sign effects, such as liver damage.

"There's so much information out there about HIV that people who don't have it are unaware of when it comes to HIV ignorance, and cause positive people some serious pain when the uninformed make us feel like a biohazard."

Josh: Yeah, I imagine.

Chuck: "And it would be awesome if you guys could do an episode, How HIV Works."

And that is Jesse in San Francisco, and he works with the LGBT -

Josh: Yes.

Chuck: Community out there.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: I can't remember where he works. But he was like "Yeah, man, read this and do a podcast on HIV," and I think that's a great idea.

Josh: I do, too.

Chuck: And we should get that together.

Josh: Forthcoming.

Chuck: That's right. Thanks, Jesse.

Josh: Yeah, thanks a lot, Jesse.

Chuck: And to your friend, boy.

Josh: In 2014.

Chuck: Get with it, dude.

Josh: I remember hearing something, I remember being a kid -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Because we were like the generation that was just -

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: Scared to death of AIDS and HIV.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Because we're the ones who were like, you know, on the schoolyard when this thing was, you know, becoming a thing.

Chuck: Yeah, yeah.

Josh: And I remember being afraid of that kind of thing, and then learning as I got a little older, like you'd have to drink something like a gallon or two gallons of an HIV patient's saliva -

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: To possibly contract HIV through saliva, or something like that.

Chuck: And you were like, "I just drank a quart, so I'm good."

Josh: Right.

Chuck: I'm good to go.

Josh: Isn't that grody?

Chuck: And the whole toilet seat thing, remember that?

Josh: Yeah, I remember that.

Chuck: It's just ridiculous.

Josh: But I have one for you that's surprising. Well, we'll do a podcast on it.

Chuck: Okay.

Josh: Okay.

Chuck: Ah, man. That's suspenseful.

Josh: Okay, so look for an HIV podcast, too.

Chuck: Agreed.

Josh: If you want to get in touch with Chuck or me, you can get in touch with us via Twitter.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: At SYSKpodcast. You can join us on Send us an email to And, as always, go check out our home on the web,

[End of audio]

Duration: 44 minutes

Topics in this Podcast: deaf