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How American Sign Language is evolving with time

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In 2014, the Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps the most authoritative English dictionary, was compelled to add the word selfie to its pages. And, you know, just as new technology and culture are constantly pushing the English language to grow and evolve, the same thing is happening with American Sign Language, or ASL, as Amanda Morris wrote about recently in The New York Times. Morris is a child of deaf adults, or CODA for short. She's an ASL user, and she conducted many of the interviews for her story in sign language. Amanda Morris joins us now. Welcome.

AMANDA MORRIS: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. So, you know, unlike adding a new word such as selfie in a dictionary, your reporting reminds us about how new signs are evolving for existing words. Like, let's take the example for the word telephone. Can you talk about that? - because it is so cool how that sign has evolved.

MORRIS: Yeah. It's actually a really interesting sign because 100 years ago, the word for telephone in American Sign language looked like an old-fashioned telephone.

CHANG: Like a candlestick.

MORRIS: Yes. I was going to say, I don't know if you've got one of these in your grandmother's house or something. But you know the ones that you hold with one hand and then you put the receiver up to your ear with the other hand?

CHANG: Exactly.

MORRIS: So the sign exactly reflected that. So the old sign for telephone has you doing one fist below your chin and another fist next to your ear, actually showing you holding these different parts of the telephone. But then over time, the sign completely changed. Eventually, telephones became hand-held with a receiver. Picture the ones where you had a little dial, like a rotary phone, you know, and you would hold up their handle to your ear. And when you do that, your hand kind of makes this Y shape.

CHANG: Like a hang loose symbol, where your pinky is near your mouth and your thumb is near your ear.

MORRIS: Exactly. So that became the new sign for phone. But now we've got smartphones, and you definitely do not hold your smartphone that way. A lot of people hold their smartphones - you know, you kind of cup your hand around it, and you put it against your cheek. And that's how a lot of younger deaf people sign it.

CHANG: Right. And now I'm wondering if the sign for a phone is going to evolve into, like, earbuds.

MORRIS: Yeah. Who knows? I mean, there's even some deaf people who have talked about, well, you know, why are we holding up the cellphone to our cheek? We don't even use cellphones that way. Why don't we have a sign for phone that looks like you're texting or something like that?

CHANG: Right.

MORRIS: So it's really interesting to see these conversations evolve about what should this sign look like.

CHANG: You know, I was particularly struck by another example. This is the sign for the word privilege. It got an update in a very, like, multidimensional way. Can you talk about that?

MORRIS: It's super-fascinating. So one of the older signs for privilege - it was sort of supposed to evoke the image of putting a dollar into a shirt pocket.

CHANG: Right.

MORRIS: So...

CHANG: To connote that privilege means more money.

MORRIS: Yeah. It was, like, used a lot to refer to having wealth and that being a form of privilege. But over time, we needed a sign to reflect a different type of privilege because our society has talked more and more about different social privileges such as, you know, male privilege, white privilege, that kind of thing. And so we needed a sign that didn't only reflect wealth because wealth isn't the only form of privilege somebody can have. So a newer sign that came about as a result of these discussions was to take out your pointy finger on one hand and hold it up as if it's a person standing. And then take your other hand, make it flat, put it underneath, and then raise that hand up. So it's like you're raising one person above others, and it's kind of supposed to reflect an inherent inequality.

CHANG: Right, exactly - inequality that could be based on a number of factors. Well, there's also this other facet, like how technology is shaping ASL because, you know, you point out that ASL users are communicating more often through smartphone screens now rather than just in person. And all the constraints of the smartphone medium - they're changing the way people sign, too, right?

MORRIS: It's fascinating because I can see it even within my own family. When I was growing up, it was really difficult to reach my parents because I couldn't just call them at any time. So over time, my parents got smartphones. And now I can just call them at the push of a button, and we can just sign to each other. And it's so much easier, and it's so much faster, and we can just get so much more across. And then I've seen even with my parents - my mom especially is all over social media, and she's been picking up new signs because of it for the first time. And this is kind of how the idea for the story came about - is that my mom and I were on a train. We met a younger man who was an interpreter, and he was telling us, like, oh, your signs are old. Your signs are old. And he was joking that, like, I signed like an old person because...

CHANG: That's hilarious. Yeah.

MORRIS: My mom and I had not been exposed to, like, a lot of these newer signs. But now, like, with social media, my mom is learning a lot - like, a lot more new signs every day. And she's, like, teaching them to me.

CHANG: That is funny.

MORRIS: Yeah, it's really interesting. And so, like, I think it's just giving deaf people a whole new way to connect.

CHANG: You're bringing up this larger point that you make in your writing, and that is there are some real intergenerational tensions in ASL. I mean, just as a 46-year-old, sometimes I can't even understand what teenagers are texting to me. So I can imagine the same things are happening in sign language. Can you talk about some of those intergenerational rifts beyond just what technology...

MORRIS: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Has been forcing?

MORRIS: Yeah. So for example, the newer sign for dog kind of looks like you're just snapping your fingers, and the older sign for dog involved patting your thigh. My mom does not like the newer sign, and she prefers the old sign. She's like, I don't want to use the new sign. Like, I like my sign. And for some deaf people, like, the older signs are very cherished, right?

CHANG: Yeah.

MORRIS: So they're very, like, special to them. They're like, oh, this is how I've always signed this word, right? And then there's also the issue of just understanding each other. I talked to some deaf people who have deaf children, and they say they have trouble even understanding their children sometimes just because of how fast and small their children are signing.

CHANG: Oh, interesting.

MORRIS: It's almost like looking at a Rubik's cube of fingers, right? Like, it's just so fast.

CHANG: Wow.

MORRIS: And sometimes, like, older deaf people are like, oh, we really prefer when you sign slower because it's so much easier to understand.

CHANG: Yeah.

MORRIS: And we like the bigger signs because they're easier to see. And they say that the small signs are harder to, like, decipher and to see. So there's some debate about that. But then there's also debate about younger generations coming up with new signs. So in English, you know, you always got new slang and young people always coming up with it. And it's the same in ASL except ASL is such a small language. And it's a really tight-knit community. And with social media now, all of a sudden, people are just proposing new signs left and right. You know, we've always had new signs in ASL and innovation, but now it's happening at this, like, breakneck record...

CHANG: Yeah.

MORRIS: ...Speed because of video and social media.

CHANG: Such an interesting, enlightening conversation. That is Amanda Morris, a CODA who's hard of hearing and a disability reporter. Thank you so much for joining us today.

MORRIS: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURYN HILL SONG, "DOO-WOP (THAT THING)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Megan Lim
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.