ASL is not a vague language

Nor is any language “a vague language.” Rather, every language has vague language, just as every language has specific language. Vagueness is a natural phenomenon; not everything in life is certain, specific, accurate, or clear. Since things are sometimes vague, people must be able to use language to express this vagueness. ASL has ways of expressing vagueness; therefore, ASL has vague language in it — just as English and every other language has vague language it it. Any language is too complex to be labeled “a vague language.” Conversely, it is not reasonable to say that any language is “not a vague language” — except insofar as to say there is no such thing as “a vague language.”

Until recently, people thought ASL was “a simple, concrete language incapable of expressing abstract thought.” Research has proved that wrong. My research into vague language (VL) in ASL dignifies ASL by proving that it is capable of expressing vagueness. Can you imagine if it were impossible for an ASL user to express vague or abstract thoughts? If that were the case, ASL would be a limited language. On the contrary, ASL is a healthy, natural language that affords its users the ability to express an infinite range of ideas. That is why I say ASL has vague language, and I support my point with the empirical research I conducted for my master’s thesis “Keeping it Vague: A Study of Vague Language in an American Sign Language Corpus and implications for interpreting between American Sign Language and English.”

I welcome discussion on this topic! Please use the comments section below to respond with whatever thoughts or feelings you have about vague language in ASL and/or other languages.

Author: Daniel Greene

I facilitate communication between Deaf and hearing people, and I teach people American Sign Language (ASL) and interpreting. Apart from doing the work I love, my greatest joys are family & friends, entertainment, food, photography, and travel.

3 thoughts on “ASL is not a vague language”

    1. The deaf people who participated in the corpus I analyzed were all native signers; that is, their parents were deaf, so deaf people (their family) taught them ASL from birth. Even if deaf people learn sign language from hearing people, it is debatable whether there is “right” and “wrong.” Many linguists ascribe to a descriptivist model, which seeks to describe language as it is actually used by people, rather than a prescriptivist model which tells people how they should use language. I don’t think it is a question of right or wrong; vague language is probably used in standard and non-standard ways by speakers/signers of all languages. My interest is not how people should use vague language; instead, I am interested in describing the ways people use vague language.

      My main goal is that ASL/English interpreters learn to perceive and express vague language in ASL and English so they can convey the vagueness their consumers are expressing to each other. Knowledge of vague language can be applied to the teaching of any language and the interpretation of any language pair. When language teachers understand how vague language is used by fluent speakers/signers of the language, they can teach their students how people actually use the language. I documented vague language in ASL with the hope that teachers will teach hearing students to sign “the Deaf way” rather than just “by the book.”

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