ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library  |  Issue 50, September 2007  |  William G. Vicars Ed.D., Editor

Hello ASL Heroes!
In a message dated 8/14/2007 7:12:40 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, annsavedbygrace(at) writes:
Hi Bill,
... I have a question.  I understand that initializing words based on English is not really ASL.  But when I read about that, I thought about the signs for 'aunt', 'uncle', 'cousin'... 'family,'  'class' and other words.  These are all initialized.  How can it be alright to initialize some words, but not others?
Just curious,
Ann Cantrell
What is "alright" in a language is a moving target.
The things that are "alright" today, might not be "alright" a year from now.
I have pinned down some of my colleagues and friends and asked them that same question.
I love my colleagues and friends, but I've gotten some pretty lame answers.  One of them answered something to the effect of, "It is okay to use initialization that was naturally developed and in use in the Deaf community prior to the development and spread of the various Signed English systems invented by Hearing people--but it is not okay to use initialization that came about as a result of Hearing people inventing signs."
I had to stare at his face for a moment to make sure he wasn't kidding me.  He wasn't. 
So, if you are looking for a logical reason for why "certain signs" can be initialized and others can't -- I doubt you will find much agreement.  If you ask experts about it, most of them will just squirm a bit and tell you that's the way it is or they will come up with some "strange reason."
The real reason is simply the "law of consensus."  It is a form of evolution.  Mutations are introduced into a language.  Such mutations will tend to be perceived as strange by the old-timers.  If the mutation is compellingly beneficial it will gain a foothold and start building acceptance within the community.  After enough of the old-timers die off, the new members of the community (who grew up with the beneficial mutation) will simply embrace it as natural. Eventually a consensus will develop that the new sign (mutation) is "okay."
If a mutation is not compellingly beneficial, it will die off. For example, for a very, very brief time back in the early 1990's the term "text telephone" was introduced into the language.  The sign was a double T (slightly reformed while moved an inch or two to the side).  This sign was not beneficial.  We already had a sign for a text telephone:  TTY.  Trying to shorten the sign to TT didn't work because it was easily confused with the sign for "bathroom/toilet." 
So, where does that leave you as a second-language learner trying to pick up ASL?  How do you know which signs are okay to initialize and which ones are not?
1.  Hang out with members of the Deaf community.  Make a list of any initialized signs that show up on the hands of many Deaf people.
2.  Review the literature:  Get a stack of 10 ASL dictionaries or textbooks.  Make sure they say ASL in the title or on the cover -- not just "sign" or "sign language" or "signing."  Look up your list of initialized signs and see if there is a consensus in the literature. 
3.  Check the online ASL dictionaries to see if they agree with the textbooks.
4.  Take a few ASL classes from a variety of instructors. For example try to take two ASL courses at the same time from two different instructors.   Each time you see an instructor use or teach an initialized sign--make a note of it and then ask the OTHER teacher what he or she thinks of that sign (no need to mention where you learned the sign--grin).
Dr. V

In a message dated 9/2/2007 10:13:37 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, writes:
Dr Vicars,
Thank you for your great web site.  I have used it as a resource in my middle school classroom with great success, especially the fingerspelling site.  Students love to use it to see who can guess words the fastest.
I was wondering if you do any traveling to conduct immersion programs.  Several of my co-workers (Educational Interpreters) and I have passed the knowledge portion of the NAD-RID certification and would like to take the performance portion.  Our problem is that as educational interpreters we have little opportunity to practice using our receptive skills as a community interpreter would.  How would you feel about visiting the good old Eastern Shore of MD (try out the Atlantic Ocean for a change of pace; we are 35 minutes from the beach).  We would love to be a part of an immersion program to "warm up" our receptive skill in preparation for the test.
Melinda Glover
Hello Melinda,   :)
Thank you for your kind invitation to go out to MD.  I have fond memories of the Atlantic from my youth as an intern at the David Taylor Research Center in Annapolis (across the bay from the U.S. Naval Academy).
I receive a number of requests such as yours each year from ASL Heroes around the nation (and occasionally other parts of the world). 
And although I would enjoy coming out and meeting a bunch of new people, it realistically isn't feasible for me to launch an immersion workshop in a distant location due to the logistics of finding and arranging for enough talented ASL professionals to be involved.  Here in Sacramento I have my finger on the pulse of the local talent and can confidently pull together some really terrific teams. 
Now, I feel for you and in an effort to be helpful I'd like to share with you a link to a page I use to post advice to an "ASL Club."  Check out:
There is no reason why you can't set up your own immersions there in Maryland. There are many hundreds of ASL professionals there that you can bring together to create an awesome immersion experience.
I'll post a sample list of information that needs to be included in your advertising to help make your event successful.
Best wishes in all your endeavors.
Dr. Bill

What: "The Official Title of the Event"
Who: (Who is invited? Who is this for?  ASL students? Everybody?)
Why:  Is this a social event? Leadership training? ASL practice?
Date:  The day and date of the event:  For example: "Saturday, July 24"
Hours: The starting time and the ending time of the event
Cost: Is there some sort of contribution?
Where:  Exact street address, and the name of the city
How to get there:  insert a "map" from yahoo maps or some other online map: (
Hosted by: (What organization?)
Contact person: First and last name, phone, and email
Interpreter: Is this event interpreted?  Is it conducted in ASL?
Close captioning:  Will it be captioned?
Dress: Should I wear a tie? Work clothes? Casual? Bring my swimsuit?
Transportation:  Is it provided? Carpool available?
Babysitting:  Is it provided?
Website:  Is there a web page with more information?

In a message dated 9/3/2007 1:40:27 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, annsavedbygrace(at) writes:
In ASL, are 'be' verbs and the articles used in the titles of books and movies, etc?
"Be" verbs (is, am, are, was, were, etc.) and articles (the, an, a) can be either spelled or omitted--depending on how precise the signer wants to be. It is also very common for skilled ASL signers to use "Signed English" to express "be" verbs" as part of titles.  Doing so might be referred to as "code switching." When you are quoting a title that was coined in another language, it is common to switch to that language in order to quote the title exactly.  If an English speaker wants to refer to a book with a Spanish title, he or she will generally quote the title in Spanish. For example, there is a book called "La Vida Rica."  I plan on buying it for my wife for her birthday, (shhhh, don't tell). If I were to translate that title into English it would be "The Life Rich" or more accurately, "The Rich Life."  If I go into a bookstore and ask an employee to help me find the book, I would not ask for "The Rich Life" -- rather I would code switch to Spanish and use the actual Spanish title of the book since that is what it is listed under. 
ASL instructors who follow the "prescriptive" approach will tend to be more strict and tell you that you should spell the "be" verbs and articles in titles.
ASL instructors who follow the "descriptive" approach will be more flexible and point out to you that they see Deaf people handling it titles in a variety of ways in the Deaf Community.
In 2007 a movie came out titled "The Simpsons Movie."  If asking someone whether they had already watched the movie it would be common to sign, "MOVIE, S-I-M-P-S-O-N-S, YOU FINISH WATCH?"  Or even, "S-I-M-P-S-O-N-S MOVIE, WATCH FINISH YOU?" But suppose months later you are at a video store and your Deaf friend is standing at the online computer catalog and wants to know if the store carries that movie and asks you what the title is--you would likely sign either, "T-H-E SIMPSONS MOVIE" (fingerspelling the word "the.") or "THE SIMPSONS MOVIE" (using the signed English sign for "the").
So the rule is, "it depends."
Dr. V

In a message dated 9/5/2007 6:14:29 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time, a corporate employee writes:
I've had [your fingerspelling wallpaper] on my work pc for more than a year now.  Unfortunately, we all got an email that was sent from upper mgmt, stating we could only have family and/or pets, or "corporate's" wallpaper.  I've (so far) left mine "as is", but doubt I'll be able to keep it that way for much longer.  :-(  I'd hate to have to give it up, but workplaces can be sooooo dictatorial these days.  And we have NO "handicapped" (D/deaf or otherwise) working there.  (They're just now getting the campus ADA updated, because the city pressured them into it.  The place just missed the ADA enactment at the time.)
And no, I don't want to put it on my home pc, because I already have a pic from "home" (back east) on it.
How about this: 
We are all brothers and sisters in the gospel.
Therefore I'm your brother.
Thus you have a picture of your "brother's" hands up on your screen.
--Brother Bill


In a message dated 9/5/2007 11:41:36 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time, RWright(at) writes:

Hello Dr. Vicars, Hope you had a wonderful summer break. Can't wait for our ASL classes to start again.
A few of us still get together weekly to practice, but it is not the same without you. :-)

I have a favor to ask of you. I need to know what this means before I tell Dr. Ellerbee the following:

"Me fist smack attitude yours, wow".

This came from our Deaf School in Fremont. See attached note.

Will you please convey my message to Dr. Ellerbee? Tell him, “Me fist smack attitude yours, wow”. If he does not understand this, have him ask his sign language teacher, smile. Thanks.

In a message dated 9/5/2007 6:38:45 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, BillVicars writes:

Hello Rosa,
The "fist smack" part of the message means to kiss (smack) the back of your fist, which can be interpreted as meaning "love it."  The "WOW" sign is often used to add emphasis your message and could be considered an "exclamation point."
Thus the message could be interpreted as: "I really love your attitude!"
--Dr. Bill

In a message dated 9/9/2007 7:00:36 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, writes:
Dear Bill, 
I wanted to thank you for such a wonderful web site.  My son, Sam, is speech delayed.  We have found that teaching him how to sign has greatly increased his confidence and speech production.  We are always using your site to learn more words and phrases.  Also, is there a sign for "Ohio" or "Buckeye"?  
Thank you Again,
I don't know of a sign for either of those (Ohio, or Buckeye).  I'll ask my readers if they know of one.
A Deaf person living in Ohio would be your best bet for finding a sign for "Ohio."

In a message dated 9/11/2007 7:24:08 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, ndnlittlecrow(at) writes:
Dear Dr. Bill,

    One of my friends was looking up spiritual growth and is sure  that you would sign SPIRIT and GROW, and I feel like it wouldn't be GROW but a different word (s) like SPIRIT BECOME BETTER.

Greatly Appreciative,
 It would be easy to start a bunch of ASL instructors arguing over that phrase.  Heh.
I think most Deaf would indeed understand "SPIRIT GROW" as meaning spiritual improvement.
You could sign SPIRIT IMPROVE if you wanted.  But realistically, the phrase "spiritual growth" is so complex that any "one" ASL sign other than "grow" will simply not cover the complexity.  But for what it is worth, my first thought was: SPIRIT DEVELOP.  Which would mean "spiritual development."  But what does that mean, really?  It means a whole host of things:  Become more patient, loving, kind, charitable, generous, meek, knowledgeable about godly things, etc.. That is a tall order.  My thought is to simply expand the semantic range of the sign GROW to include growth of things other than plants.  And then duck your head when the argument begins.


In a message dated 9/11/2007 10:54:36 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time, writes:
I am teaching my homeschooled senior 3rd semester ASL and we have some confusion regarding placement of pronouns such as in:
I am a student.             We would sign it as:     I student I.
Oh, I understand.         We would sign it as:    Oh-I-see. Understand I.
The confusion arises whenever other materials place the I at the beginning or the end, sometimes in the middle.  Is there a hardfast
rule for the pronoun placement?
I've referred to your website in previous years and am glad to see how it has grown.  Thanks very much.
Debbie Petter
There are a number of "correct" variations of "pronoun placement" (word order) in American Sign Language (Humphries & Padden, 1992).

For example you could say: "I STUDENT I" or, "I STUDENT" or even, "STUDENT I." 
Note: The concept of "I" in these sentences is done by pointing an index finger at your chest and/or touching the tip of the index finger to your chest.

You could sign:


All of the above statements are "ASL."

I notice that some "ASL" teachers tend to become fanatical about encouraging their students to get as far away from English word order as possible and thus focus on the version "FROM U-T-A-H I."

It has been my experience during my various travels across the U.S. that the versions "I STUDENT" and "I FROM U-T-A-H" work great and are less confusing to the majority of people.

The version "FROM UTAH I" tends to be used only after the subject of the conversation has been introduced.  For example, suppose two people are talking about a man named Bob.  If one of them says he "thought Bob was from California" and I happen to know he is really from Utah, I would sign "FROM UTAH HE" while nodding.

Humphries, T., & Padden, C. (1992). Learning American sign language. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall.


Looking for an ACCREDITED online ASL course?  How about one offered though the California State University system?
Check out:
For information, contact  JoAnna Rodgers (,  Program Coordinator, California State University Sacramento College of Continuing Education, 3000 State University Drive East Sacramento, CA 95819-6103 T (916) 278-4813

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