In the four years since my master’s thesis was published by Western Oregon University on Digital Commons, it has been downloaded 2,036 times. Oddly, though, I have not heard from readers or seen it cited. What strange times we live in! If you read my thesis, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment to let me know how you used it in your research and/or practice. Thanks!
Someone on Google+ today asked me what I thought of the article All Things Linguistic — Dialects of Sign Language: Black ASL. I responded with the following comment, which I felt should be shared here:
Yes, I’m familiar with this. The segregation of black Deaf children in black Deaf schools, and the segregation of black and white people in general, led to a distinct variety of ASL. The cultural and linguistic heritage of that dialect endures today.
When I was a video relay service (VRS) interpreter, I saw Deaf people call in from all over the US, and I learned a lot of different signs I had never seen before, since there are so many regional varieties. I saw difference in pace, rhythm, signing space, syntax, words that were fingerspelled instead of signed, and vice versa.
I wish this would not come as a surprise to hearing people who know nothing of ASL, because they should understand that ASL is as varied as spoken language, and emerges and evolves organically among language communities. Instead, it seems most hearing people assume that ASL is a fixed system invented by hearing people and taught to Deaf people all over the world. They also seem to assume that Deaf people take what is “given” to them without question or alteration. Of course they don’t realize they assume this, but the way they talk about it, they do. For example, when I tell them I am an ASL interpreter, they assume I teach ASL to Deaf people, as if Deaf people needed a hearing person to teach them how to communicate. They also say things like “why isn’t it universal? It should be!” I ask them “why isn’t English universal?” They seem to take for granted that hearing people have the sovereignty to create and use their own languages, yet they think Deaf people don’t create their own ways of communicating, and should be made to communicate the same way all over the world.
I’ll leave you with the video that inspired the original article:
There is a sign in ASL some call CHA-HEAD because “cha” is the mouth morpheme used in ASL for something big, and the sign for BIG is made around the head level to indicate a “big head” (figuratively speaking). The formal gloss for this sign is ARROGANT (glosses are conventionally written in ALL CAPS). Since ASL has no written form, when people want to write about ASL, or talk about it in English, they assign glosses to signs. The benefit of these glosses is they give us a way to transcribe ASL for the purposes of notation and translation. The drawback of these glosses is they tend to limit our translation of these signs that one gloss, rather than to what the signs actually mean in context.
as any good interpreter or translator knows, words and signs in one languages do not always have single word/sign equivalents in another
One example of a gloss that I believe limits our vocabulary is the gloss ARROGANT for the sign, well, let’s call it CHA-HEAD for lack of a better word other. The thing we might forget is that CHA-HEAD often doesn’t mean anything as extreme as arrogant. A few cases in point: I was interpreting a video relay call some years ago (and of the thousands of call I interpreted in seven years, this is one that stands out), and a Deaf brother signed to his hearing brother something to the effect of YOU CHA-HEAD TELL DAD. I (unfortunately) voiced, “it was arrogant of you to tell him.” The hearing brother said, “I’m not arrogant!” I realized at that moment is was my interpretation, not what his brother said, that he was responding to. I asked the Deaf caller to hold just a moment, and I explained to the hearing caller, “this is the interpreter— sorry about that interpretation. A better interpretation would have been, “you shouldn’ta done that.” I chose that interpretation on second thought because that’s what the Deaf person’s utterance “felt” like when I saw it; in other words, that was the sense of what the Deaf person signed. I had made the mistake of interpreting the form of the word I had been taught for that sign, and the translation was woefully off. When I really thought about it for a moment (and how many “moments” do we really have when we are interpreting a phone call?), I realized not only did the sign not mean arrogant; it really didn’t even translate to a particular word, but more to an expression.
Another case in point, which brought this up for me recently: I was debriefing with a fellow interpreter, and I felt I needed to call them out on something they did on the job that I felt was less than appropriate (as I’ve said, I believe interpreting teams need to be blunt with each other for the sake of consumers. We were conversing in both our languages (as bilingual people often do), and I said, “I thought that was a little [switching to ASL without mouthing] CHA-HEAD.” My colleague said, “it wasn’t arrogant!” Now, you have to understand, this colleague is an intelligent, well-educated, and seasoned interpreter, so if they thought of the word arrogant when confronted with that sign, it tells me the connotation is well entrenched among ASL-English interpreters. What I said to them was, “well, I didn’t mean arrogant; I just meant kind of liberal [in the demand-control schema sense of favoring action as opposed to inaction].” I just felt that they had done something that overstepped an interpreter’s bounds a bit. Of course, that is arguable, and the point is not which one of us was “right” or “wrong”— the point is that my colleague took exception to my ASL sign because of the denotation assigned to it by the English gloss.
A Thesaurus of Translations for CHA-HEAD other than ARROGANT
Since the sign in question means so many things milder than arrogant, here is a list of translations with a range of meanings to match a range of situations. Note these are not all single words, because as any good interpreter or translator knows, words and signs in one languages do not always have single word/sign equivalents in another. These translations are context-dependent, and are not by any means suggested to be one-size-fits-all. Pick and choose what suits the situation. Here’s my list as of now:
- to take it upon oneself to…
- to go right ahead and…
- to just…
- to overstep
- overstepping one’s bounds
- beyond one’s place
- crossing the line
- a bit much, don’t you think?
- the nerve!
- to have the nerve to…
- full of oneself
- taking liberties
- to think [one] can just…
I’m sure the list could go on, but that’s all I can think of at the moment. Do you have any other translations? Please leave a comment. Thanks!