An ezine for students and teachers of
American Sign Language.

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 January, 2006   

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Hello ASL Heroes!

In a message dated 11/1/2005 7:51:37 AM Pacific Standard Time, romulin101@ writes:
Bill: Hi, quick question for you. If I want to say the word "what" in a non- question form, how do I sign that. I know a lot of the time we'll just skip the word what (when it's in a non-question form), but if we don't how would we say it. For example, "That is WHAT I meant." Or "Let me tell you/show you WHAT is bothering me (or, let me tell you WHAT bothering me). Thank you, RL
In ASL the concept of "what" is often expressed in other ways than a specific sign.
In the sentence "That is what I meant."  You would sign, "THAT! I MEANING." The sign THAT would be emphasized by using a bigger, slightly faster movement.  Or you might just sign, "MY POINT!" (The right index finger would point at the left upright index finger.)
In the sentence "Let me tell you what is bothering me" you would sign, "SOMETHING BOTHER ME, YOU-MIND I TELL-you ?"  The variation of the "SOMETHING" sign I'm referring to can also mean "someone or single."
There is a "generic version" of "WHAT" that is made by extending your left (or non-dominant) hand outward. Move the tip of your right index finger downward across the left palm.
I strongly advise you to not begin using a specific or generic sign for "WHAT" for statements.  Rather, you should seek to figure out the underlying concepts and use appropriate ASL equivalents.
Now, there is a form of "what" that you might not have learned yet that is very good to know, and that is the variation used for "exclamations."  This is the lexicalized (mutated fingerspelling that sort of looks like a sign) version: #WHAT, which starts as a "W" handshape, moves forward and down quickly and ends in a "T" handshape.  That version is used when you want to express incredulousness or astonishment.
Dr. Bill

In a message dated 11/17/2005 7:11:02 AM Pacific Standard Time, kstaniewicz@ writes:
I have a question regarding fingerspelling. I work with children who learn fingerspelling as we learn our letters. We have both "lefties and righties" in our class. Technically speaking, it is easier for the children to use their dominant hand to fingerspell. Is the right hand the correct hand to fingerspell with or is it acceptable to use the left?
Not only is it "acceptable" it is best if children spell with their dominant hand.
The same goes for signing in general.  Left-handed people should do basic signs in a mirror image of right handed people. For more on this topic, visit the library and check out the left handed signing entry. :)

In a message dated 12/10/2005 1:47:48 AM Pacific Standard Time, writes:
I [have a question] about eavesdropping on two people signing.  Does that bother deaf people?  Or does it depend on the situation?  I went to an event required for my class. At the event i went to i was starring at everyone and i got some weird looks.  there really isn't any way to whisper in ASL so i was just wondering if that culturally acceptable
Eric, It depends on the situation.  It is generally expected that some Hearing students will show up and stare at various Deaf events. If an event has been advertised in a widely distributed newsletter and is held in a public place then it is relatively safe to assume that you are welcome to show up and observe.
However, there are times when it is not inappropriate to observe. Suppose the event is not an open social, for example--a few deaf people having dinner together at a restaurant or a Deaf couple out on a date. During those times it is NOT polite to eavesdrop. 
Think of your own experience as a hearing person.  Are there times when you wouldn't mind others overhearing what you are saying? What circumstances are those?  How about the times when you would feel bothered by someone listening in on your conversation?  Now apply those principles to your own observations of Deaf people. Bill
p.s. there are plenty of ways to whisper in ASL: sign small and off to the side, sign using privately known signs, cover your hand and fingerspell, etc.  

In a message dated 12/9/2005 3:08:36 PM Pacific Standard Time, writes:
Dr Vicars, I have used your site as a resource as I teach my hearing baby sign language, and I really enjoy browsing the dictionary.  There are a couple of signs I would like to know:  waffle (is it similar to pancake?) and Christmas lights.   Thank you so much! Gretchen Callison
I haven't seen a good sign that I like for waffle, so I end up just doing the "flip" version of the sign "pancake" initialized with a "W."  The flip is very small, more like a backward movment of "cook" than "pancake."
My coworker does the a similar movement but uses a "four" handshape, (he is one of those types that think, "initialization is nasty."
  For "Christmas lights" I do Christmas: and then the version of light that thumps the underside of the chin with the middle finger of an "8" handshape. See Bill

In a message dated 12/4/2005 2:59:08 P.M. Pacific Standard Time, writes:
Hi- I had a quick question about some signs-For the term "human interest story" and "feature story" what would you you suggest I sign? 
Diane McDonnell
Before you can appropriately express this concept in ASL you must first acknowledge that you are dealing with a bilingual/bicultural situation.  You are attempting to take a "Hearing world" English term, and express it in ASL.
It is important to realize that most hearing people are not too clear on the phrase "human interest" either.  The two words together do not paint a "clear and complete picture" for a beginning journalism student.  The student or casual news recipient doesn't know what a "human interest" story is until it is explained to him or her. 
For example, if I asked the typical Hearing American, "Was the recent hurricane disaster a "human interest" story?" He or she would likely say yes.  But that would be an incorrect answer since news of a catastrophe, destruction, and loss of life--while sad and tragic--does not fit the established definition of a human interest story.
According to, a human interest story is a type of news story that is "concerned with the activities of a few named people. It is often considered to be the story behind the story, in that it shows the personal emotions behind a large news story affecting many people. An example would be an interview with a survivor of a natural disaster."
Ah, there's the trick, if we were to interview an individual then it becomes a human interest story. Otherwise it is a feature story.
If you were to use ASL and sign the words HUMAN INTEREST STORY, some so-called expert or other would likely point out that those words do not express the full concept of the meaning.  Well, la de da, so what?  Neither do the words in English.  It takes two or more English sentences to express the ideas behind those three words.  Thus can we expect it to be any different in ASL?  Then after the person with whom we are speaking understands the idea behind those signs we can continue our conversation by using a short phrase to convey the extended meaning.
With that in mind, my response is that on first introducing the concept to someone who hasn't yet been exposed to it, you would need to sign something to the effect of: N-E-W-S STORY TITLE-(topic) INDIVITUAL, (bodyshift)-OR FEW PEOPLE, ("or"/huh gesture) SPECIFIC GROUP.  INVOLVE THEIR EMOTIONS, FEELINGS, SOMETHING IMPACT THEIR LIVES.  THAT-one STORY NAMED (pause, eyebrows up), AGENT INTEREST STORY.

By "agent" I'm referring to the non-initialized version of the "PERSON" sign.
For "feature story" I'd sign MAIN STORY.  Or maybe "top story," or "most important story."

In a message dated 11/30/2005 8:24:21 PM Pacific Standard Time, writes:
Dear Bill,  ... Recently my 18 month old son has had an ABR test and the results confirm that his hearing loss is 90 decibels in one ear and 75 decibels in the other. Unlike you I do not love to learn things and at times my brain operates in a muddled up fashion however I have a drive to learn ASL as quickly as possible for my son. He is very smart and tonight while reading a Sesame Street book by Lynda Boyd all about signing he caught on what was happening. He copied me by pointing at the pictures and then signing with his hands (All gibberish but it's a start). I do have a question concerning learning ASL. There seems to be many different ways to sign many words. In 3 different books there are three different Towel signs. Can we just pick one that feels right for us. We live on Vancouver Island In BC, Canada and there are very few Deaf people here.  Any advice would be appreciated.  Thank you for your great website! From Fred de St. Croix Canada

Think of variations in sign books as being similar to variations in word choices.  In English we have the words: sofa, couch, chaise lounge, chesterfield, davenport, daybed, divan, lounge, ottoman, and settee. (I didn't know all of those, heh, I used a Thesaurus.) The important thing is not to let worrying about which sign is right slow down your progress.  My advice is if you see two signs that are different, try to ask a Deaf person which version he or she sees used most often in your area.  If you don't have access to a local Deaf person, then you are going to have to make an informed guess by comparing two or three dictionaries and seeing which version of the sign seems to show up most often.  If you get three different dictionaries, with three different signs, try to see which sign looks most like the concept you are trying to express.  For example, there is a version of the sign for towel that looks like someone drying the back of their neck by pulling the towel from side to side behind their neck.  There is another sign for towel that looks like you are drying your mouth.  Using logic I'd deduce that when talking about a bath towel I'd use the first sign, and when talking about a paper towel or napkin I'd use the second sign.
Then later while interacting with Deaf people, if you notice they seem to consistently do a sign differently than you have learned from a book--it will be time for you to abandon your sign and adopt the one you see used in the community.
Dr. Bill

In a message dated 11/16/2005 2:05:57 PM Pacific Standard Time, writes:
Dr. Vicars, You speak of Deaf culture and the different levels of immersion.  Here is a question for you.  I know a teen (we'll call her Suzy) who was born deaf and has an implant.  She is not allowed an interpreter for school and she reads lips pretty darn good.  She can read, speak, and write in English.  When I sign to her she doesn't seem to use the right signs for the meaning she is trying to convey.  Is it possible that she isn't Deaf, culturally speaking?  Is that possible?  Should I correct her mistakes or add them to my "Suzy" vocabulary? My adult Deaf friends notice her mistakes and are confused by her signs.  Is it perhaps just that she is juvenile? Thank you, Melanie
Melanie, Suzy is a peripheral member of the Deaf community.  She is not-yet culturally Deaf.  As she learns ASL and comes to understand and internalize the norms, values, traditional customs, attitudes, manners, and ways of the Community she will become culturally Deaf.
Whether you should correct her signs or not depends on your role in her life, your role in the Deaf community, and her desire and willingness to learn new or standard signs.
If your role is that of a teacher, you would certainly want to suggest accurate sign choices from time to time.  If she seems open and willing to accept constructive feedback, keep it up.  If she seems defensive, you might consider alternative ways of helping her develop her sign communication skills:  put an ASL dictionary where she will find it, invite her to tag along to Deaf events, point out good ASL-related websites, ... heh get creative--introduce her to a boy who uses ASL fluently.
Cordially, Bill
In a message dated 11/15/2005 10:06:27 AM Pacific Standard Time, writes:
There is an essay on your site [] written by Bethany Polley about Gallaudet and I wanted to read it to my ASL class.  May I?  I liked it better than the others and wanted to share it with my students.  I was going to tell them the authors name and the website where I found it.  Would this be acceptable?  Melanie
Melanie, Certainly! Feel free to read it. Feel free to make copies and hand out freely. Feel free to post links to and any of it's sub-pages Cordially, Bill
  In a message dated 11/15/2005 9:09:13 AM Pacific Standard Time, writes:

Good Morning Bill,
...I've always wanted to sign and know a little via my parents who signed (finger spelling only) so I wouldn't know what they were saying, ... 
How do you sign the word, worthy?

Kimberly B.

In general, you use the sign "important" to mean "worthy" and rely on context.
But it depends.  Try to think of what the concept means, and then think if you know any signs that convey that meaning.
In a message dated 11/14/2005 6:26:09 AM Pacific Standard Time, writes:
Dear Dr Vicars,   ...The powers to be in my area, northeast Indiana, seem to be in disagreement as to which language is going to survive in the long run, ASL or SEE.   I have had several offers of employment in the school systems as an interpreter even though I am woefully under qualified but have been told by the main deaf liaison here that SEE will cease to exist and the only way to learn is to learn ASL.   I am working very hard trying to get my Indiana certification before 2008 when the laws change to make it necessary for people to have a BS degree in Deaf Communication.   It isn't possible for me at this point in my life to leave my home and go to college so I'm trying to work on my own (with your help of course) and with the help of a few members of the deaf community in my town.   I guess what this all boils down to is what is your opinion, ASL or SEE?      Thank you again, so very much           Sincerely Elaine Wiening
Elaine, Adult deaf are going to continue using ASL for the foreseeable future. Hearing administrators and well-meaning educators are likely to continue promoting SEE for the foreseeable future. Hmmm, so, looking in my crystal ball, I'd say that...they both survive. However since I teach and make my living from ASL, heh, you should certainly learn ASL. Er...what I mean is, learn 'em both! It's like back when I used to do computer networking for a living.  There were (and still are) quite a few popular networking systems. At the beginning of my studies I wondered which of the two main ones I should pursue, Microsoft or Novell. I ended up pursuing Microsoft Certification and eventually got a job with a relatively good salary and was fairly happy. (Later I went back to my true love, teaching ASL and am even happier.)  But here's my point--some guys studied for and passed both Novell and Microsoft Certification.  Those fellows earned thousands more per year than I did!  It was only fair since they knew more than I did and were able to provide greater value to their clients. The same holds true for sign language interpreters. If you learn more than one system you will be more flexible and (generally/eventually) earn more than someone who only knows one system. But, if you are going to go with only one or the other...personally I'd suggest ASL because--of the two--ASL is the one that fulfills/provides "language credit" at colleges and universities throughout the US and is preferred by the majority of the Deaf community. Cordially, Bill


In a message dated 11/10/2005 6:35:25 AM Pacific Standard Time, writes:
Hi Bill,   I am an engineer in Dallas, Texas and have been using the fingerspelling quiz at to practice letter recognition.  I have a deaf co-worker that I like to communicate with using fingerspelling when possible so the site has been very helpful.  I want to bring to your attention that it did surprise (and disturb) me with one of the words it used in a quiz - the word was "f_cking".  Maybe in New York that word is simply an adjective, but here in the South (and I hope in Sacramento) that word is worthy of an "R" rating and is not socially acceptable.  Anyhow, I don't know what dictionary or list the quiz pulls words from, but I wanted you to be aware of that one and again I thank you for the site, it has been most helpful for a novice like myself.   Sincerely, Eric Ratzman
Eric, Woah!   I thought I had gotten out all words of that type.
Sorry about that!  As a result of your email I have deleted that entry from the web site word pool.
Hey, THANKS for the "heads up."

In a message dated 1/5/2006 9:20:33 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, writes:

Hello Bill,
Marta Andrews-Suttorp contacted you about finding someone to practice signing via webcam. Could you please give her my email and let her know I am interested.  You might remember me asking the same questions she did lol

I'll post your message to the next newsletter. (I might not be able to track down Marta, so let's hope she still reads the newsletter. Marta, Aaron's email address is:

In a message dated 1/1/2006 2:10:20 PM Pacific Standard Time, thebucky@ writes:
When young, I severed the tendons in my left pinky and now it doesn't work quite right. It doesn't straighten or bend all the way and the tip doesn't move independently from the rest of the pinky. Something like this, or missing the tip of a finger or whatever, is this sort of like a speech defect? You just work your way around it and others will learn your particular "accent"?
Yes, you have the equivalent of a "speech impediment."
For everyday life communication purposes minor hand defects are "no big deal."
I recently went to a party hosted by one of my coworkers.  I met about 8 new people and chatted with them for various lengths of time.
Later, while replacing a baseboard in my kitchen I was using a power saw.  Such things make my wife nervous and she mentioned how common it seems that carpenters are missing parts of their fingers or thumbs. As an example she referred to one of guests at my coworker's party.
Honestly, I never noticed.  Apparently the fellow was missing from the last knuckle onward for three fingers of one hand.
I had interacted with him directly for at least five minutes and was around him for much longer than that.  I never even noticed his "impediment." 
I was genuinely surprised to be informed that he had cut off part of his fingers.  Now, admittedly that could be due to my not being very observant, heh.  But the fact is it simply wasn't an issue and didn't affect his or my ability to communicate.
Many of us Deaf have "other issues."  We grow up used to seeing others with physical deformities.  Any time you get a group of 30 or 40 Deaf together there are usually a few that have something noticeably different about their bodies. A somewhat sticky situation is that of hearing interpreter wannabes who have hand defects. That is a bit like someone with a facial scar wanting to be an eyelash model.
Deafness (generally) is not a choice.  Becoming a professional interpreter is a choice.
Deaf people need to communicate with their hands.  Hearing people do not "need to" become interpreters. There are thousands of other jobs hearing people could do.
This fact leads to an important psychological difference in the level of distraction caused by a hand impediment. 

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