ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library  |  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, monta(at) writes:
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 used?: )
Monta Briant
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 dragging sign.
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.
Dr. V
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 _____________,
Charleston SC

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 purchase.
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?" (subtractive)
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 large binders.
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 mean "courageous." 
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 different people.
Each knife has a relatively small, very sharp blade.
They are basically the same knife.
But the moment you hand that knife to two different people a profound change is likely to take place. 
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 a scalpel?  
The real difference is in the knowledge of the user. 
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 seeming miracles.
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 surgeon owns?"
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 "communicate."
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 best--amusing. 
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 user.
Apples to oranges.
Hmmm, better make that bananas.
(Dr. V of 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:
Thanks so 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 your help.
Hello Craig,
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 Bill, but...),
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 really fast!).
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 advice?
Thank you for your time.
Your program looks awesome!
Larry Lutz
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 them.)
Also, go to and learn your fingerspelling.  Then go to to practice your receptive fingerspelling.  A couple hours on that site will make it so you can read your coworker's fingerspelling.
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 signs easily.)
Then you can pick up the grammar through the lessons and through interacting with your new colleague.
Dr. V

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?
Dear teacher,
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.  Such 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 sell.
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) 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.
Two issues.
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 Hearing students.
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, etc.
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 voice." 
Example: The boy threw the ball.  (BOY THROW BALL)
If you use the object as your topic your are using "passive voice."  
Example: The ball was thrown by the boy.  (BALL?  BOY THROW).
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 object. 
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 throwing.  
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 use topicalization?"
Another way to ask that same question, "When should you put the object at the front of the sentence while raising your eyebrows?"
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 found.)
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 as topicalization.
TOPIC COMMENT means stating a topic and then making a comment.
Topicalization means that you are using the object of the sentence as the topic.

You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure without using topicalization.
You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using topicalization.
You can use TOPIC COMMENT sentence structure by using SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT
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."
Dr. Vicars


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 idioms??
I received a list that was titled "asl phrases" but they look like idioms to me. HELP???

Dear confused,

Yes, there is a difference between an "ASL phrase" and an "ASL Idiom."
Let's establish some definitions:

ASL phrase:
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 community.

ASL idiom:
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 "HEARING"-(culturally).
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. 

Point 1:
All idioms are phrases, but not all phrases are idioms.

Point 2:
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.

Point 3:
A phrase can be an idiom to one person and not an idiom to a different person.
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").

Hearing 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.

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

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 Idaho State
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 when
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 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 Sacramento.
William Vicars, Ed.D.
Asst. Professor, American Sign Language
California State University, Sacramento
6000 J Street
Sacramento CA 95819-6079


American Sign Language University ™ © William Vicars