ASLpah.com | Issue
49, Aug 2007 | William G. Vicars Ed.D., Editor
Hello ASL Heroes!
In a message dated 8/23/2007 6:45:07 A.M.
Pacific Daylight Time,
Dear Dr. Bill,
I would like to
know your opinion on the sign for WAGON, as
in a children's wagon that you pull. I don't
see it anywhere on your site, but have seen
a couple of variations of the sign.
The ASL browser
shows an upturned fist (looks like an "e"
hand to me) pulling right to left, I have
also seen a downturned "S" hand used. Any
ideas on which, if any, is more commonly
Sign2Me Presenter, San Diego
You will not find a "standard" sign for "toy wagon"
because there isn't one.
Ask ten adult Deaf people and you will get a variety
of signs that generally look like the pulling of a
wagon. As I sat here at my desk, I found myself
using both index fingers to show the left and right
front wheels and then doing a pulling movement.
In real life if the topic of toy wagons came up it
would probably be because you have a wagon in front
of you and so you would point to it. But if
you were discussing a toy wagon with an adult deaf
person and no wagon was around, you'd spell it. You
might sign CHILD W-A-G-O-N, or PLAY W-A-G-O-N to
indicate you are not talking about a horse drawn
wagon (which does have a specific sign). If you
were telling CHILDREN a story about a toy wagon, on
first reference you'd use a combination of signs and
spelling to describe it (yes, we spell to children
they might not phonetically sound out w-a-g-o-n, but
rather they see the shape and flow of the word and
often form a direct association between the
fingerspelled word and the object which it
represents) . You'd point to it in the book if there
was a picture. If there was no picture you would
use classifiers to show the size and shape. You'd
show the wheels, and then you'd do a pulling
movement. The second time you mention the "wagon"
you then use fewer signs. By the third or fourth
time you refer to the wagon you simply use the
I personally like the palm down, "S" handshape,
right to left movement. But that doesn't mean I
think it is any "better" than the palm up movement.
I do know that if I just walked up to my wife and
out of context asked her, "YOU WANT BUY WAGON?"
using that sign,--she would have no clue what I was
talking about. Now, if I mouthed the word wagon,
she would probably get it. ("Mouthing" is a whole
different discussion that has already been posted).
So, if you want to teach a sign for wagon, feel free
to show the "drag" sign. Note: I find myself doing
a small double movement to indicate the noun form vs
a larger single movement for the verb form.
In a message dated 8/23/2007 2:57:09 P.M.
Pacific Daylight Time, A professor at a
university in South Carolina writes:
Just out of curiosity, what is the average
vocabulary for an adult ASL user?
How many signs does s/he know? A ballpark
figure would be fine. I'm trying to compare
vocabulary of human ASL-users with that of
gorillas who have been taught ASL.
(name on file)
Professor of _____________,
To answer the question "What is the average
vocabulary for an adult ASL user" I will respond
with a question. "How many colors are there?"
Here are three sample answers to the question,
"How many colors are there?"
1. It is impossible to specify a certain number
of colors exist.
2. There are an infinite number of colors.
3. It depends on which box of crayons you
4. There are only three colors the rest are
just combinations of those three.
Let's modify the question a bit: "How many
different colors can an artist create from a
palate on which there are three globs of
paint: cyan, magenta, and yellow?"
Or how many colors can a computer screen depict
by interpolating a combination of red, green,
and blue dots?" (additive)
If not "infinite" the answer is certainly a
very, very large number.
So, are there just three colors or are there
millions? The real answer is, it depends on how
you look at it.
I fear that sometimes people look at "sign
language" and all they see is "primary colors."
While it is tempting to announce that there are
a "certain number of signs" or that an average
deaf person knows a certain number of
signs--doing so tends to vastly underestimate
the "colorfulness" and power of the language.
I once owned a paper-based dictionary of signs
that contained 10,000 signs (20 years ago,
published by the Oregon State School for the
Deaf (Salem). It was published as a set of two
So, are there 10,000 signs? Does the average
Deaf adult know 10,000 signs?
I see online dictionaries pushing well beyond
that number of signs.
I suppose I personally know around 15,000 "base
signs" and how to inflect (modify) most of those
signs about five different ways, thus I know
75,000 "signs." Note: Skilled signers know how
to inflect their signs via in the speed and path
of the movement, palm orientation,
location, body posture, head tilts, facial
expressions, etc. They can easily inflect the
sign "tired" to mean "exhausted" or "strong" to
Have you taught the gorillas how to inflect
their signs? If we both know "X" number of
signs and I know how to inflect my signs and the
gorilla doesn't know how or at least not to the
extent that I do, then I have a larger
vocabulary than he does even though we know
the same number of "signs."
Let's change topics for a moment.
Suppose we hand a small sharp knife to two
Each knife has a relatively small, very sharp
They are basically the same knife.
But the moment you hand that knife to two
different people a profound change is likely to
For example in an average person's hands
it remains a simple knife useful for hobbies,
but in a surgeon's hands it becomes a scalpel.
What is the difference between a hobby-knife and
The real difference is in the knowledge of the
The average man can use a sharp blade to shave
his chin or cut his food. In the hands of a
surgeon a knife can save lives and create
We could set up a comparison and ask "What is
the average number of knives a hobbyist owns
compared with the average number of knives a
A huge pile of scalpels on a surgeon's tray
really is quite meaningless since having
more scalpels really doesn't affect the
outcome. It is the surgeon's knowledge and
experience that affect the outcome. The
surgeon's knowing how and where to slice is what
gives value to the knife. If you needed a brain
operation and had $100,000 to spend, which would
be more valuable to you, a knife in the hands of
a hobbyist, or in the hands of a surgeon? What
about a hundred knives in the hands of a hundred
hobbyists vs paying for one skilled surgeon?
The comparison is amusing but doesn't help you
as a patient.
A knife in the hand of a hobbyist is not as
valuable as one in the hand of a surgeon. You
are comparing two different values. Knives to
scalpels. Apples to oranges.
Let's make the comparison even less valid.
Hand the knife to an ape.
You can hand knives to gorillas and you can
teach them sign language and they will use the
knives to dig for food and the signs to
But to compare the number of signs a gorilla
knows to the number of signs a human knows (even
if they are the exact same signs) is like
comparing the number of knives a gorilla has to
the number of scalpels a surgeon has.
You can "hand" the exact same vocabulary word to
a gorilla and to a human. In the "hands" of a
human it becomes a scalpel that can be used to
slice new meanings out of the air. In the hands
of a gorilla a signed vocabulary word remains
just a "knife" -- useful for basic purposes, but
the comparison is at not valid, and at
But beyond being amusing, there is a danger.
Just as having a knife wielding monkey perform
brain surgery would be dangerous--it is also
dangerous for well meaning researchers to
make superficial comparisons between the signing
of humans and that of apes. The two might seem
the same but they are as different as a knife is
from a scalpel--yet for the same reason: the
Apples to oranges.
Hmmm, better make that bananas.
(Dr. V of Lifeprint.com ASLU)
p.s. I'm NOT comparing you to a knife wielding
monkey. I'm sure YOU are one of the good
researchers who will consider and reflect on the
differences between human an primate signing as
you develop your research.
In a message dated 8/24/2007 5:20:07 A.M.
Pacific Daylight Time, Craig writes:
much for your quick reply. Actually, I teach
people --- college students --- linguistics.
One of our topics is animals and human
language. For years, I've been intrigued by
the work that Penny Patterson has done with
Koko the gorilla. I've begun to suspect that
Koko actually has the ability to use human
language, but this ability is degraded, well
below what a human can do (Koko's IQ,
measured at 70, led me in this direction).
Your e-mail adds a lot of support to my
theory, since Koko's vocabulary, 6800 basic
signs (with no evidence, that I know of, one
way or another, of inflection), is well
below what you reported. Thanks so much for
I recall reading an interview that someone conducted
with Koko. At one point the interviewer wrote that
Koko had responded to a question by stating "I am
the Devil." The interviewer used this statement as
basis for criticism of Koko. I remember thinking,
how pathetic, that interviewer doesn't realize that
the sign "devil" can also be used to mean
"mischievous." It was obvious to me from the
context of the question and her response that Koko
was just simply admitting him that she was a
"tease." Yet, because of his (or whatever trainer or
interpreter was being used that day) unfamiliarity
with the language, there was a egregious error in
interpreting her meaning.
Good luck with your research.
In a message dated 8/15/2007 7:11:23 P.M. Pacific
Daylight Time, lglutz@ writes:
Dear Dr. Vicars (I know, you said call you
I have recently been transferred to lead an
engineering team. One of the team members
is a mechanical engineer who is deaf. The
company has been communicating with him with
notepads and ASL interpreters. I really
want to communicate with him directly. I
think he deserves that. I think that he is
being short-changed because of others'
unwillingness to make the effort.
The gentleman is in his mid-fiftys (so am
I). He's been deaf all his life (he signs
I have never tried to sign before.
I only speak English (if that matters)
The problem is, I don't know where to
start! Should I just start with Unit 1 and
go from there? Do you have any other
Thank you for your time.
Your program looks awesome!
Yes, start with lesson 1.
And work you way through the lessons. (The lessons are
a work in progress and I will constantly be tweaking
Also, go to http://asl.gs
and learn your fingerspelling. Then go to
your receptive fingerspelling. A couple hours on that
site will make it so you can read your coworker's
Next, visit your local library and see if they have any
books or videos. Check out an armful. Keep an ASL book
by your bed, on the back of your toilet, in your car, on
your dining room table, on your desk at work, and one in
your back pocket for reading in line at the supermarket.
(Most libraries let you check out books for 3-weeks.
That should give you enough time to learn 500 or more
Then you can pick up the grammar through the lessons and
through interacting with your new colleague.
In a message dated 8/7/2007 7:56:20 A.M. Pacific
Daylight Time, a teacher writes:
I get that impression you're a tech guru, could u
show me how to transfer pictures/text from my
curriculum book to either a cd or on the web? Scan
the pages I would assume as the first step?
Most commercially purchased curriculum, textbooks,
videos, etc. are copyrighted and thus posting such info
to the world wide web could easily lead to a lawsuit.
Many teachers think that since they are using a
copyrighted work for "educational purposes" that makes
it "alright." This is simply not the case. In some
circumstances you can legally use a copyrighted work
when it falls under the "Fair Use" guidelines of
copyright law, but such use must meet various
requirements. Some teachers routinely claim
semester after semester
that their use of other's copyrighted
material falls under "Fair Use." Such is not the case.
use is temporary. Continued use requires seeking
permission from the copyright owner.
If you have permission, or your project falls within the
"Fair Use" guidelines, transferring pictures to a CD or
a thumb drive is relatively easy.
Most scanners now come with software that will
copy and paste scanned images directly into word
processing documents. For example, my scanner will
post pictures to my Microsoft Word program. The exact
process for how to do this will vary depending on your
equipment. Check your user manual for details.
Additionally you can google "scanning tutorial" and
check out some of the sites that walk you through the
process with pictures and step by step instructions.
In a message dated 8/27/2007 5:59:22 P.M.
Pacific Daylight Time, an aspiring ASL Book
Author wrote to me.
Question: Do you have any suggestions
where I can get my book published?
Response from Dr. Vicars:
Dear Aspiring Author,
First I'd see if there are any established small
or medium-sized book publishers in your local
city and approach them about doing a small run.
Be aware though that smaller publishers will
probably want you to sign a contract that has a
small clause buried in the fine print that
requires you to purchase the books if they don't
My wife is a traditionalist and is holding out
for a traditional publisher for the novel she is
writing. She wants someone who will
actually take a risk and PUBLISH her book and
pay her royalties (as opposed to simply
"printing" it for her and cutting their risk
with "buy back" clauses). I respect her decision
and wish her well, but as for me, I have no
problem with self-marketing. Going the
self-publishing route worked for me on my first
book, "Sign Me Up." I did a small run of
3,000 copies. It took me a few years, but
eventually I sold out.
If you do decide to go the "self-publishing"
route, you might want to check out
They are very easy to use.
For example, I published a "fingerspelling word
search text" through them and they did a really
good job. See:
In a message dated 8/27/2007 3:00:52
P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, nasha5(at)verizon.net writes:
Hi Dr. Bill,
Barbara here. I study ASL at a community college here in
NY. My dilemma is that I am confused with the sentence
structure in ASL. I was previously taught Topic comment
sentence structure and Time- Topic- Comment structure. This
semester my instructor tells me that only
Topic-Object-Subject-Verb structure is acceptable. I am
very confused because I thought the topic was the subject.
Could you please give me some examples of this new
structure. Why is Topic comment not acceptable now? Please
answer me soon I have a test coming up and want to practice
this new structure before my exam.
1. The first issue is getting the grade you want out of
class. To do that you need to follow whatever method your
current instructor wants you to follow. Thus regardless of
what I tell you, regardless of what any book or expert tells
you, regardless of what you see in the Deaf community--if
you care about your grade, you need to do it the way your
current instructor wants it. I often tell my in-class
students, there are many ways to sign. For the next 15
weeks, my way is the "right" way. Heh.
2. The second issue is ASL grammar.
I've written quite a bit about ASL Grammar already and
posted it to the Lifeprint Library. Go to:
and scroll down to the "Grammar" heading.
Here I will respond to your confusion regarding the terms
"topic" and "subject."
Believe me when I say, many, (if not most), ASL instructors
are confused about the topic of "topics."
Additionally, many ASL instructors know how to sign
beautiful ASL, and know it when they see it, but don't know
how to use written English to describe ASL grammar to their
Let me state up front: ASL follows several different word
orders depending on what is needed.
Which word order you choose depends on what you are trying
to do: explain, remind, confirm, negate, cause to consider,
Much of your confusion (and that of others) has to do with
the fact that you can use either a subject or object as your
"topic" in a sentence.
If you use the subject as your topic, you are using "active
Example: The boy threw the ball. (BOY THROW BALL)
If you use the object as your topic your are using "passive
Example: The ball was thrown by the boy. (BALL? BOY
Note that the active voice: BOY THROW BALL is definitely
SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT word order.
The passive voice is: OBJECT-SUBJECT-VERB word order.
Both of those can be considered TOPIC COMMENT:
Topic: BOY Comment: THROW BALL (active voice)
Topic: BALL Comment: BOY THROW (passive voice)
In the passive voice sentence the "ball" which is actually
the object is being used as the topic, and the comment is
that it "was thrown by the boy."
So, you can see that the topic can be either a subject or an
A "topic" is simply that to which a comment is referring. A
topic is what you are talking about.
My topic can be a "BOY" or it can be the "BALL" he is
The BOY can be the subject of the sentence: BOY THROW BALL
The BOY can be the object of the sentence. BALL HIT BOY
The BALL can be the subject of the sentence. BALL HIT BOY
The BALL can be the object of the sentence. BOY THROW BALL
My comment can be "THROW BALL"
My comment can be "HIT BOY"
Therefore a TOPIC-COMMENT sentence structure can use either
a SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT word order, or it can use an OBJECT,
SUBJECT VERB word order.
When you use "OBJECT, SUBJECT VERB" order you are doing
something called "topicalizing" or you are using "topicalization."
Topicalization simply means to take the object of your
sentence and turn it into your topic.
You do this by using "yes/no question expression" (raised
eyebrows) while signing the topic, and then making a comment
about the topic. During the comment portion of your sentence
your facial expression should match the intent of the
comment, (negation, affirmation, declaration).
At this point in the discussion you might be wondering,
"When should you use passive voice instead of active voice?"
Another way to ask that same question is, "When should you
Another way to ask that same question, "When should you put
the object at the front of the sentence while raising your
There are several situations when you should topicalize. A
few examples applying to ASL are:
1. Unknown subject: When the subject is unknown: MY
WALLET? GONE! (I don't know why it is missing, if it was
stolen, or who stole it. Thus to state this with active
voice I'd have to sign something to the effect of, "SOMONE
STOLE MY WALLET" – which takes longer.)
2. Irrelevancy: MY CAR? SOLD! (It doesn't really matter
who sold it. Just that the process is over. So why should I
waste time explaining who sold it? Maybe it was my friend's
uncle that sold it to his coworker. So what. It's gone!)
3. Expediency: MY SIDEKICK? FOUND! (If I explained to you
last week that was at the county fair and lost my text
messaging device I don't want to have to explain it to you
again if you still remember what I told you before. So I
sign "SIDEKICK" with my eyebrows up and then when you nod in
recognition that tells me you do indeed remember the
conversation, then I go ahead and tell you that it was
Unfortunately some instructors overemphasize topicalization
or give the impression that the majority of ASL
communication is topicalized. The fact is many (if not
most) ASL sentences are simply SUBJECT-VERB
(transitive)-OBJECT, example: "BOY THROW BALL" or are
SUBJECT-VERB (intransitive), for example: "HE LEFT."
Now let's be clear that TOPIC COMMENT is not the same thing
TOPIC COMMENT means stating a topic and then making a
Topicalization means that you are using the object of the
sentence as the topic.
You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure without using
You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using
You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using
You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using
SUBJECT-VERB (HE RUN.)
You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using
SUBJECT-NOUN (HE HOME = "He is home.")
You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using
SUBJECT-ADJECTIVE (HE TALL = "He is tall.")
You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using
OBJECT, SUBJECT-VERB ("MONEY? she-GIVE-me).
All of the above constitutes only a partial list of ways to
express grammatically correct ASL. In each case the topic is
simply what you are "talking about."
In a message dated 8/28/2007 7:20:11 P.M. Pacific
Daylight Time, an instructor writes:
Dear Dr. Bill:
Is there a difference between ASL phrases and ASL
I received a list that was titled "asl phrases" but they look
like idioms to me. HELP???
people do not have this information. They assume that the sign HEARING
is equivalent to the spoken English word "hearing" and thus the phrase
"Hearing people" seems peculiar and is considered an "idiom." So
whether something is an idiom or not depends on your point of view.
Yes, there is a difference between an "ASL phrase" and an "ASL Idiom."
Let's establish some definitions:
1. A set of two or more ASL signs arranged in a sentence.
2. A set of two or more ASL arranged as a meaningful unit preceded and
followed by pauses.
3. A brief utterance or remark that commonly occurs in the ASL Deaf
1. An expression in American Sign Language the meaning of which is not
predictable from the usual meanings of its individual signs. For example
"train gone." The meanings "you missed it" and "I will not go back and
repeat my recent narrative," are not predictable from the individual
constituents "train" and "gone (diminish into the distance)."
2. An expression that is peculiar to the ASL Deaf Community.
3. A construction or expression of American Sign Language the parts of
which correspond to elements in another language (typically English) but
the total meaning of which is not matched in the second language. For
example, at the Indiana School for the Deaf I observed a
third-grade girl turn to the boy behind her and sign (while voicing),
"FINISH (on handed) BOTHER ME!" In ASL the expression "FINISH BOTHER
ME" means "knock it off" or "stop bothering me." In English the word
"finish" can mean "continue an action until you have completed your
task." Thus to a "Hearing person" the expression "FINISH BOTHER ME"
sounds very peculiar. Another example is the expression
The phrase "Hearing people" is very common in the Deaf world, but it
seems peculiar to people who are not members of the Deaf Community.
All idioms are phrases, but not all phrases are idioms.
There are multiple definitions for the terms "phrase" and "idiom."
If you are using one definition and your colleague is using a different
definition confusion and disagreement will result.
A phrase can be an idiom to one person and not an idiom to a different
When examined from outside of the Deaf world, many ASL Phrases might be
considered "idioms." Those same phrases when considered from inside the
Deaf world would not be considered "idioms." To a Deaf person
the phrase "Hearing person" simply refers to someone who tends to
"speak" and is not culturally Deaf.
The phrase "Hearing person" doesn’t
seem peculiar to Deaf people. Which means that to Deaf people the
phrase "Hearing person" doesn't seem like an idiom.
Deaf people consider
the phrase "Hearing" to be a fitting description since we have inside
information. We know that the sign "HEARING"-(culturally) also means
"speak" (or even "public").
Point 4: A Deaf person developing an ASL curriculum might create a list
of signs and label it as "idioms" because he doesn't know the equivalent
phrase in English. A classic example is the "GULP"-(claw hand closes
into "S" hand at base of neck) sign. There is a very close English
equivalent to this sign. The English word is "chagrinned." But since the
corresponding word is unfamiliar to the Deaf person he labels the sign
as an idiom.
Point 5: Sometimes people mislabel "multiple meaning" phrases as
idioms. This occurs when phrases have many possible interpretations.
Some curriculum developers call such phrases "idioms" rather than take
the time to fully examine the meanings and matching interpretations of
the phrase.. For example, the "SICK-YOU"-(one handed, jab motion) sign.
This sign has several English equivalents, for example, "That's
twisted!," "You pervert!," "You pest!," "I am so tired of that!" "It was
funny the first time but now it is just annoying."
Point 5: A Hearing person might make a list of phrases and call it a
list of idioms because to him the phrases seem peculiar. A deaf person
might look at the same list and scratch his head wondering why these
common phrases are being labeled as idioms.
(Dr. V of Lifeprint.com)
In a message dated 8/31/2007 5:38:21 A.M. Pacific
Daylight Time, an ASL instructor writes:
... Do you mind if I ask your thoughts on the
doctorate program at Lamar University? Did you feel
it was beneficial? Did it help you as an ASL
teacher? I just finished up my masters in Deaf Ed at
University and will likely pursue my doctorates at
Lamar. I live in Austin, TX so I will probably do a
summer program or online program (if they offer it).
Basically I'm wanting to get a doctorates so that
my kids finish school (in about 10-11 years) I will
probably go back to teaching ASL at the college
level (I've taught at SLCC, ISU, and BYU-I).
Perhaps by that time UVSC might be interested in me.
Or, with luck,
BYU will finally have a program.
The program at Lamar is solid.
They are growing, progressive, and have
been established for many years. Regularly
they pull in grants in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In
terms of technology training and implementation, they
are cutting edge
What you get out of it depends on what you as a student put into it.
The 3 years I spent there were very beneficial to me
professionally. During my time there I proposed doing "action
research" for my dissertation using my Lifeprint.com website as the
curriculum for an accredited on-line ASL course. They were
supportive and let me forge ahead. I appreciated the fact that they
were flexible and able to meet the widely varying needs of their
students. Some students needed a lot of guidance and support--which
they received. I was on the other end of the spectrum. I knew what
I wanted and was pleasantly surprised that the faculty had enough
self-confidence to get behind me and push instead of trying to lead
me in directions I didn't want to go. At the time I attended Lamar
they had a program wherein they regularly flew in world-class Deaf
Community Leaders. For example, they provided the opportunity for me
to meet and have lunch with Clayton Valli, co-author of the
popular Linguistics of American Sign Language text, Dr. Mckay
Vernon, author of an incredible number of research articles, Dr.
Shirley J. Allen, the first Deaf Black woman to earn a
doctorate, Glenn Anderson, the first deaf black man to receive a
Ph.D., and many other incredible people.
Having an accredited doctorate in Deaf Education opened the door for
me for a full-time faculty position at California State University
William Vicars, Ed.D.
Asst. Professor, American Sign Language
California State University, Sacramento
6000 J Street
Sacramento CA 95819-6079