How do you sign “new” words? The Deaf community works as a network, collectively brainstorming new sign language terms over the web, until dominant signs emerge.
On the one hand, this is a neat article with some interesting discussion, and if you ever wanted to know how to sign “selfie” in ASL, well, you’re in luck.
On the other hand, the writers of the article clearly don’t know much about how dictionaries are made, because the whole emerging community consensus point is exactly how all languages work.
We asked Douglas Ridloff about how new technology enters ASL and he described the different ways in which terms are brought in.
“With words like ‘Glide’ or ‘Instagram,’ we’ve started to see signs emerge,” Ridloff explained. “As a collective, we see various signs until one emerges as the agreed upon sign by a collaboration of the community. A few months ago, this became a very hot topic online, people were throwing out suggestions for different signs that could designate the concept of ‘Glide.’ We eventually narrowed it down to one sign that everyone in this online community agreed to use… In terms of Instagram, I still see quite a bit of variety regarding the sign usage, we haven’t seen a consensus yet. I think there are several reasons why. For instance, the CEO from Glide got involved and it was really key that he was a part of that collaboration in coming up with one definitive sign. When it comes to Instagram, a representative has yet to be involved in that process, so no consensus has been reached and thus it will take longer to come to a consensus. There isn’t an official canon or anything. It’s a small community.”
Lack of consensus for emerging vocabulary? Sure, ask a handful of internet-fluent English speakers how to pronounce “doge” (or even the older “gif”) and I bet they’ll disagree. And the same goes for borrowing: there’s an initial lack of consensus about how to transcribe “television” in the Arabic alphabet, and people use various Chinese characters for “coca-cola” until the company comes up with an official version.
Languages are not products of dictionaries; dictionaries are pale reflections of how people are already using language — and lexicographers keep trying to tell us this. But it’s unbalanced to start with English words for which a consensus has just recently emerged (lexicographers finally felt okay including them in a dictionary) and expect that ASL should have reached a consensus on exactly the same ideas. For example, why should anyone expect ASL to have a word for “five second rule”? I bet French doesn’t either.
The biggest difference between compiling a dictionary of ASL and English is that English has a large body of written work that you can comb through for examples, so you don’t have to ask people individually, while ASL has a smaller existing corpus, so you do need to ask more people. But even that isn’t a signed/spoken thing so much as a big/small language thing: many spoken languages don’t have long written traditions either, or even if they do they may still be very small, and so you also need to ask people directly. For example, see superlinguo's recent post about a Kagate dictionary-making workshop.
I mean, I’m glad that the writers shared the misgivings that the people they interviewed had about representing the words in flux, especially since they clearly weren’t expecting to any sort of complications at all, but this is one of those areas where I wish people were better informed.