Political correctness enters world of deaf

January 03, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Perhaps as recently as two or three years ago, a deaf person would sign the word "Japanese" simply by twisting the little finger next to the eye.

But today, many of the more than 200,000 people who use the American Sign Language avoid using this sign because it makes a graphic reference to a stereotypical physical feature, slanted eyes.

Instead, many deaf people are making the sign for "Japanese" by pressing the thumb and index fingers of both hands together and then pulling them apart, carving the silhouette of Japan into the air.

"When I was growing up, I didn't give that sign a thought," said 65-year-old Dorothy Casterline, a deaf woman of Japanese descent who lives in Laurel, Md. "But now that we are becoming aware of cultural differences, people have feelings about it."

The signs that are changing, like the spoken words that are dropping out of polite usage, are often terms for various ethnic groups. In American Sign Language, which sometimes has its roots in easily recognizable gestures, signs are often deemed offensive because they are visually provocative.

The signs for "Chinese" and "Korean," which are made by forming the letters "C" and "K" around the eye, are changing. There is an emerging term for "African-American." One of the current signs for "homosexual" was unacceptable 10 years ago. And one of the signs for "stingy," which is derived from the sign for "Jewish" (rubbing on an imaginary beard), has recently stimulated discussions among deaf Jews around the country, though no new sign has actually shown up in its stead. This particular sign for "stingy" adds a clenched or tight fist to the imaginary beard.

"Political correctness has definitely crept into the deaf world," said Professor Yerker Andersson, a sociologist here at Gallaudet University, the world's only liberal arts college for the deaf. "Though I don't always care to use that label, because some people use it negatively. When I say 'political correctness,' I mean 'increased sensitivity.' "

For many deaf people the new signs are not only indications of sensitivity to those who are slighted by stereotypes, but they reflect their own desire for recognition as a distinct group that deserves the same sort of deference being extended to ethnic, religious and racial minorities.

"In American Sign Language, politically incorrect terms are often a visual representation of the ugly metaphors we have about people," said Professor Elissa Newport, a psychologist at the University of Rochester who specializes in how people learn signed languages. "It's sort of an added twist."

The old sign for "Negro," for instance, was made by flattening the nose with the middle finger. This raised stereotypes about the broad noses of blacks and was replaced by one of the signs for the color "black." The index finger is either placed by the eyebrow or wiped across the forehead.

Today, some deaf people, like hearing people, prefer the sign for "African-American." But the sign for "African" is changing, too, in part because it is still centered around the nose. The new sign is simply to draw the continent of Africa into the air with one's


Thirty years ago, a swish of the wrist was one of the legitimate signs for "homosexual." But it was dropped because of its suggestion that homosexuals were effeminate.

Until recently, some deaf people also ran their middle finger through their hair to sign "homosexual," though most others regarded that sign as an epithet because of its overtly feminine character. The appropriate way to sign "homosexual" these days is to finger-spell it or to place the sign for the letter "q" on the chin. A decade ago this sign was unacceptable because it meant the equivalent of "queer." Now it is in vogue.

Sign language changes gradually, just as English does. The fine-tuned, highly-sensitized signs have caught on mostly in urban settings and among the highly educated, much in the same way that the terms like "African-American" first caught on at college campuses.

But most sociologists speculate that this special attention to diversity has taken longer to catch on in the deaf community. "Deaf people have less access to the media," said Mr. Andersson. "Hearing people, obviously, hear everything, everything, so they become more aware of small cultural changes. It takes deaf people a bit more time to realize them."

Some educators and sociologists also speculate that these efforts to modify the American Sign Language are only of marginal value.

"Political correctness in the deaf community is certainly meaningful to a degree, because it addresses the stereotypes of certain groups," said Frederic Jondreau, the director of the American Sign Language Institute in Manhattan. "But I think its overall impact is questionable. The deaf don't really have the luxury of fully dealing with issues like race and gender yet. They're still addressing . . . the acceptance of sign language."

The trend toward political correct signing may help erase damaging stereotypes about the United States. The deaf in this country have recently begun to encourage the deaf abroad to change their stereotyped signs for "American" to the sign that deaf Americans use for themselves. That sign is to lightly weave the fingers of both hands together in front of the body and bring them around in a circle.

In Russia, this change certainly casts the United States in a more flattering light. There, the old sign for "American" was to suggest a big belly with one hand and to give the Russian sign for "capitalism" with the other.

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