The use of indigenous signs by interpreters1

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Created 24 May 1999, links updated monthly with the help of LinkAlarm.

There is a movement among some Deaf people to use indigenous signs for foreign countries and their cities. By indigenous I mean, for example, the Japanese Sign Language sign for "Japan", rather than the ASL sign. This development has been sparked by an increasing interaction between American and foreign Deaf people through activities such as international Deaf sports, Deaf Way, Deaf tourists (who can communicate more easily with foreign Deaf than Hearing people in a similar situation), Deaf missionary work, and Deaf people working in such settings as the Peace Corps. Should interpreters begin to use these signs in their work too?

I believe two articles from Silent News are very helpful in examining this issue. The articles are "A sign of African-American pride" by Emmanuel Azodeh, March 1994, and "In England, deaf community fights to keep their offensive signs" by Rajeev Syal, month? 1994. Azodeh discusses the various signs that have been used for "Africa" over the years. Since Africa is a continent, not a country, there is no indigenous sign for it, but it is interesting to see the emotions that a sign can evoke, just as labels of ethnic groups evoke emotions: consider "Negro", "Colored People", "People of Color", "Afro-American", "Black", and "African American".

To encapsulate the parts of his article that are of interest to us here, Azodeh says that around 1989 the sign for Africa, which begins with a [5] handshape, palm orientation away from signer, tracing a half circle to the dominant side while closing to an [O] and dropping slightly, replaced the sign where an [A] circles the face. The original sign for Africa was derived from Swahili and began at the forehead and circled the face. This represented the African continent and a profile of the "African Mother": that is, Africa as the cradle of civilization. People would point to the face to represent specific countries, such as "Nigeria" would be under the chin. I would comment that we see how the origin of a sign can be tied to a very tender and loving concept with significant metanotative impact.

Later when the sign for Europe changed, "Africa" shifted to begin from the jaw rather than the forehead, but the circular movement resembled BEAUTIFUL as in the expression "Black is beautiful." The sign first mentioned that starts with a [5] surfaced in the 1970s. In 1990 Azodeh traveled to Nigeria and shared this sign with the Deaf people there. They preferred the sign at the face because this allowed the viewer to maintain eye contact with the signer. Breaking eye contact implies looking down on something. Other signs are illustrated and rejected. Sign etymologies are always controversial, especially since this is a relatively new study, but the point I wish to make is that the article shows how signs, like words, can have a very high emotive impact, and this should be taken into consideration when selecting or maintaining a given sign. The article is worth reading in its entirety and makes many points not mentioned for the purpose of this article. James Womack (quoted in says of the sign that is a [C] that traces the shape of the continent and closes to a [O^], "The new sign [for Africa] is American and a certain Jack Burns came up with it during a theatrical rehearsal in Los Angeles back in the mid-1970's."

The other article by Syal, reprinted from the (London) Sunday Times, discusses how Hearing (my emphasis) people in England are trying to prevent Deaf people from using some signs that the Hearing people find offensive. The signs have come to the attention of Hearing people by being broadcast on television as part of the BBC's See Here program. For example, the sign for Gay is a limp wrist, and the sign for Jew resembles a hooked nose. Austin Reeves, chairman of the Sign Language Committee at the British Deaf Association, said that the television producers "are in a dangerously powerful position to dictate language." I certainly agree that Hearing people should not make decisions for Deaf people about their language! This article is also well worth reading in its entirety.

Since signs for nations, nationalities and ethnic groups are a volatile issue, what is an interpreter to do? Let us consider the benefits and drawbacks and end with how to ameliorate the drawbacks if the Deaf consumers are supportive of indigenous signs. The benefits of using such signs are: (1) it shows the unity of Deaf Americans with international Deaf people and encourages the former to help other countries in their struggle for Deaf Rights and Liberation; (2) it broadens the perspective of Deaf people by showing the pervasiveness of Deaf cultures with its consequent increase in Deaf pride; (3) it respects the right of a foreign country to self-determination in regard to its own identity; (4) some ASL signs are seen as insulting or derogatory (IRELAND, POLAND, and CHINA) and using indigenous sign avoids that problem, and (5) it decreases the need for fingerspelling the many countries that have no ASL sign.

The drawbacks are: (1) some D/deaf people prefer the ASL signs and an interpreter who uses the indigenous signs may appear as if s/he is legislating sign language; (2) the new signs may be confusing and hard to get used to (especially for those countries that already have an ASL sign); (3) Hearing people don't use indigenous names, such as "jung gwa" for "China" and "Deutschland" for "Germany"; (4) some indigenous signs are identical or extremely similar (signs that resemble one another) - such as BELIZE and BRAZIL, EL-SALVADOR and ARGENTINA, IRAQ and ENGLAND.

To ameliorate the drawbacks the interpreter should: (1) use ASL signs or fingerspelling if the consumers object to the indigenous ones; (2) use ASL signs if consumers are too confused or be sure to sign negotiate and watch carefully for backchannel feedback; (3) who says Deaf people have to follow Hearing culture? maybe we should follow Deaf people on this one; and (4) if a country has more than one indigenous sign, pick the one that is not homologous to ASL, and if there are none, rely on context.

In a related topic, I have been disturbed by interpreters using offensive signs. That they were ignorant of these signs was not so bad, but they tried to rationalize their way out of it, which made me think that their ego was more important than possible offense to their consumers. For example, I used to work in Seattle, Washington where Boeing is a big employer of Deaf people (and Hearing people too!) The standard sign for Boeing is AIRPLANE while mouthing Boeing. (I always hate it when speaker use Boeing, airplane, airline and airport in the same paragraph!) For a joke some Deaf people sign BORING with the AIRPLANE or ILY handshape. It is amusing. But I saw one interpreter sign that during a formal presentation at a company that is a subcontractor of Boeing. I advised her that it was inappropriate for the setting and she laughed it off. "It's such a cute sign," she signed back to me. She did try to sign Boeing properly but you could see her stumble at it about ten times. That meant to me that she has always used that sign over and over again for years! It's not that I am worried about the honor of Boeing, but it is a violation of register to use a mocking sign in the middle of a presentation that is trying to show Boeing in a positive light. It also draws the attention of the Deaf people away from the topic to this inappropriate sign. Imagine if a Deaf person were signing at such a gathering and the interpreter voiced "the Boring Company" because some hearing people mock the company in that manner!

Another person used the sign N*GGER (N twisting at the side of the nostril). When I explained that this was a very derogatory sign and offensive to many people, the interpreter replied "Well growing up I saw lots of (White) Deaf people sign that." I explained that a lot of White hearing people used to use the term "n*gger", but most people realize that this is no longer cool. Again, it didn't bother me that she didn't realize this, but that she wanted to save face, rather than avoid inadvertent insult. Understand that I spoke with both of these people in a very respectful and informational tone, not that of a Political Correctnik.

Another example that people should be made aware of while we're on the subject it the sign for Louisiana that looks like EXCRETE. During an event that happened in Louisiana, the platform interpreter signed this for "Louisiana". She was later corrected by some Louisianans. I don't know here reaction but I bring it up as a caution. This sign is widespread so it is not so amazing that this should happen.

Sometimes in trying to be PC, some people are offended anyway. I enjoy using the indigenous signs for countries (their own signs for themselves). One time in interpreting for a Deaf Chinese woman, I used the sign for CHINA that traces the outline of the Mao jacket across the top of the chest and down the side of the chest. She did not like this sign because her Mother had grown up in China under Mao and had characterized the Mao regime as very oppressive and so passed down the hatred for everything Mao.

The moral of the story is be aware of signs that are generally seen as offensive, and if some Deaf person is offended by a sign that most Deaf people accept, be flexible enough to change your sign for the moment out of respect for the needs of the Deaf consumer. If you have several consumers that want different signs, let them decide, and if they can't then go back to what you would use with an explanation that it is to hard to try and use both signs throughout the speech event (presentation, class, interview, what have you.)

The search and dispersion of indigenous signs is an evolving one. Here is an interesting letter that was originally posted to TERPS-L on 21 July 2003 by Roger Beeson:

I'm a BSL (British Sign Language) interpreter. The sign described [Webmaster: I had described the currently used sign for Jamaica] is the one used by Jamaican BSL users for their own island of Jamaica. When talking more generally about the Caribbean, "WI" (for West Indies) is used. This is fingerspelled in the UK's two-handed form.

I've become suspicious of attempts to use an indigenous sign for a particular place or concept. Bearers of such fruits sometimes mis-remember or misunderstand the context of the signs. One such example was the introduction of the indigenous sign for "Russia" into BSL. A group of Russians attended the British Deaf Association's congress in Brighton in 1990. Their sign for where they were from looked uncannily like the BSL for "lie". In a matter of days the sign had mutated itself, reversing the direction of motion until it looked more like the BSL "boy". That seemed to make it acceptable in terms of BSL. It took several years before people felt confident enough to use the original form.

BSL currently uses a politically-correct sign for "China" which no Chinese people recognise.

I am looking forward to another flood of "foreign" signs into the UK, as attendees at the WFD in Canada return. They'll be keen to impress us stop-at-homes with their Citizen of the World personas! In amongst these new sign will be lots of blunders.


Bar-Tzur, D.

golden marble bulletDeaf cultures and Sign Languages of the world.
golden marble bulletIndigenous signs for cities
golden marble bulletIndigenous signs for countries


golden marble bullet(2004, April 4). Giving the finger to un-PC sign language. It's a sign of the times - politically incorrect sign language is being given the thumbs down. Traditional signs used by deaf people to signify ethnic and religious groups are being dropped because they're now considered offensive.

golden marble bullet(2004, April 4). Signing ban falls on deaf ears. Australia's deaf community has rejected international calls to ban sign language gestures critics say are offensive to Jewish, Asian, gay and disabled people. With television authorities in Britain last week stopping the use of a range of deaf signs - including making slanty eyes to indicate an Asian person - local signers defended their use. They claimed the hearing community often misunderstood sign language and had no right to demand changes.

golden marble bullet(2004, April 4). Changes in sign language for deaf. Deaf people are the latest to be dragged into the world of political correctness. Sign language has been forced to evolve with the times to introduce what are described as some more appropriate signs to describe various ethnic groups.

golden marble bullet(2004, March 21). Limp wrists and slant eyes must go as political correctness demands new signs for the deaf. Political correctness has caught up with sign language for deaf people. Gestures used to depict ethnic and religious minorities and homosexuals are being dropped because they are now deemed offensive.

Lazorisak, C. & Lazorisak, A. International cities and historical signs. Signs of Development, Inc. "Ever been in the situation when the name of a city, world leader or historical piece of information came up in your work repeatedly and you wished you knew that sign name? This comprehensive professional development activity will provide you with signs for cities around the world as well as an in-depth discussion about how they got these name signs." To order.

World Federation of the Deaf. Gestuno : international sign language of the deaf = langage gestuel international des sourds : the revised and enlarged book of signs agreed and adopted by the Unification of Signs Commission of the World Federation of the Deaf. (out of print)

Sign etymologies.2

Etymologies are fascinating! Here are some categories of sign origin for the world's indigenous signs for cities and countries:

Explanation of glossing system used

Abbreviation: New Zealand - NDH [B], PO > DS, FO up. DH [N] slides down palm, then changes to [B^] and touches palm again. (< their fingerspelling of N-Z.)

Appearance of the city: Hong Kong - [E], PO > signer, FO up, is held below face and opens 2x to [5]. (< the bright city lights.)

Appearance of the people: Yemen - (2h)[O^] rub thumbs across FTs while moving down side of head. (< payoth, or sidecurls that are worn by very religious Jews.)

City's honoree: Leningrad - [O^] touches chin, then touches NDH [B], PO up, FO away. [< Lenin's beard and the sign GRAD ("city").]

Country's shape: Namibia - [modified B with index finger folded into palm], PO > signer, FO down, is held in free space. (< shape of country.)

Distinctive dress: Beijing (Peking) - [H], PO > signer, draws a diagonal line across the chest from opposite shoulder to the waist. (< the sash worn by state officials at the beginning of the century soon after the fall of the Ching dynasty.)

Distinctive hat: (1) Germany - [1], PO away from signer, FO up, touches wrist to top of head. (< spike on top of soldier's hat during the nineteenth century.) (2) Egypt - (2h)[B], touch behind ears and then descend to the shoulders. (< headdress of Pharaoh.)

Eating habits: Taiwan - [S], PO away, FO up, twists at mouth. (< eating sugar cane.)

Famous resident: Nazareth - (2h)[5], POs ><, FOs away, NDH touches the midpalm of DH with its middle finger slightly extended, and then DH touches NDH in the same manner. (< the sign for "Jesus" who grew up in Nazareth.)

Famous structure: Panama - (2h)[H dot], POs > signer, FOs ><, fingers bend back > signer 2x. (< the Canal gates opening and closing.)

The Flag: Turkey - (1) [bC] circles forehead CCW. (2) [bC] moves up and down at forehead. (< crescent moon on flag.)

Historical occurrence: Ashkelon - (2h)[S], POs away, held high, push to the sides with force. (< the city where Samson pushed apart the pillars of the amphitheater to kill the Philistines as a dying act of defiance.)

Indigenous animal: Australia - (2h)[8], POs away from signer, FOs up, flick to (2h)[open 8] 2x. (< kangaroo.)

Indigenous custom: India - [I] touches FT to center of forehead and twists 2x. (< mark on forehead of married women in India.)

Indigenous dance: Tahiti - (2h)[T], POs > signer, are held with DH held high and NDH held at chest, both hands twist at wrists in place. (< from an indigenous dance.)

Legend: Antwerp - [A], PO > NDS, twists slightly at wrist. {< a legend about a hero who killed a giant by throwing his hand [Antwerpen < Hand-Werpen ("hand throwing")] which held a sword.}

Local climate: Galilee - [5:] is held at mouth with PO > signer, then pronates (twists until PO is away from signer). (< the Israeli sign for "hot".)

Local terrain: Beersheva - (2h)[B] with thumbs flush with other fingers but not folded into palm], POs ><, FOs away, descend and meet with a V-shaped path. (< the valley in which the city is located.)

Meaning of the city's name: Salzburg - [F], PO down, rubs index and thumb together while moving > DS. [< Salz ("salt").]

Modified fingerspelling: England - (2h)[1], POs > signer, but forming right angles so that FTs can point outward diagonally. DH slides its index finger along NDH's index several times. (< the index finger is an "E" in British fingerspelling.)

Musical instrument: Scotland - [S] arm is held with elbow at side and squeezes together 2x as if playing bagpipe. (< bagpipes.)

National color: Russia - [1^] is drawn across the lips and then and then the finger is flung so that the FO is away. [< Russian sign for red (like the lips).]

Orthography (common in Asian signs): Taipei - (2h)[L], POs > signer, FOs up, tap pinkie sides together 2x. [< sign for "north" which also resembles the ideogram (character) for that word.]

Religious gesture: Jerusalem - (1) touch [B] to lips, then bow forward with (2h)[B], POs down. [< kissing a mezuzah (a scroll of Biblical verses affixed to doorposts), the city is famous for its huge mezuzot and the Muslims bowing at the mosque of Omar.]

Size of country: Singapore - [bC], PO away from signer, FO up, closes to [bO] 3x. (< "tiny little thing".)

Sports: Madrid: [1], PO > NDS touches forehead repeatedly while moving > DS. (< bullfighting.)

Image credits.

1. Multimedia Palace.