Read an Excerpt
Why This Dictionary?
This dictionary represents a commitment to American Sign Language, known familiarly as ASLa commitment to its authenticity as a living, evolving, fully functional language and to its role as a cohesive force among the large numbers of its regular deaf and hearing users known as the Deaf community.
Numbering more than 16 million, people with hearing loss form the largest disability group in this country. Adding to this number are the 4,000 to 5,000 babies who are born deaf every year, countless numbers of people who suffer injuries or illnesses that cause deafness, and those whose hearing is deteriorating as a natural result of the aging process.
After a long and controversial history, American Sign Language has emerged in recent decades not only as the standard means of communication for deaf people and for their families, friends, and colleagues, but also as a symbol of cultural unity. Sign language is in fact the native languagethat is, the language learned before any otherof some 300,000 to 500,000 users in North America. At any given time there are roughly 100,000 people actively learning ASL, both in formal institutions of learning and in classes conducted by social agencies, churches, and other groups. It is estimated that 13 million people, including members of both the deaf and hearing populations, can now communicate to some extent in sign language. If we count all of them, this would make ASL the fourth most commonly used language in the United States.
American Sign Language is becoming even more important as federal law increasingly mandates acceptance and accommodation of deaf people in the workplace, the education system, and public accommodations. Most recently, the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law on July 26, 1990, has extended to deaf people what may be the world's strongest civil rights legislation for the disabled. Businesses and public entities of all kinds must now be prepared to communicate effectivelythrough sign language if necessarywith job applicants, employees, customers, and service users who are deaf.
Clearly, the need for reference materials in sign language is great. To help meet this need, the Random House Webster's Concise American Sign Language Dictionary offers a comprehensive and up-to-date treasury of signs, faithfully recording their formation and usage. In addition to the standard signs used in day-to-day communication throughout the nation, this book features signs from an expanding technical vocabulary. Thus this dictionary is a broad reference designed to be useful to a wide range of users, from novices seeking "survival signs" for rudimentary communication to sophisticated users already fluent in ASL and looking to enlarge their vocabularies. This compendium is drawn from an ever-growing collection, maintained by the author and continually augmented by contributions from members of the Deaf community.
The formation of each sign in this dictionary is depicted in relation to the entire upper torso, in illustrations prepared by Deaf artists using models from the Deaf community. Each illustration is accompanied by a complete verbal description of how the sign is made and, often, by a "hint" to help the reader remember the sign.
As with any other living, growing language, American Sign Language can never be fully and finitely documented: it constantly evolves and changes; it has variant forms that shift according to individual, group, or regional usage; and most saliently, as a language transmitted not by writing but by gesture, it is in many respects a language to which no printed reference book can fully do justice. What this dictionary can do, however, is provide the fundamental building blocks of this language: a basic vocabulary of ASL signs.
And so, welcome to the beautiful visual language called American Sign Language! Enjoy the physical character of each sign and the messages that its gestures convey. Through interaction with its community of users, add the nuances of the language that come so naturally to its native speakers. Above all, put aside inhibitions, physically and emotionally entering into the essential conceptual nature of the language.
HOW TO USE THIS DICTIONARY
What This Dictionary Contains
Requirements of a Lexicon of Sign Language
Like any specialized dictionary, such as a legal or medical lexicon, this one contains a specialized vocabulary. Rather than embracing the full spectrum of terms from common to technical that one finds in a standard dictionary of English, this book focuses on the body of signs most responsive to the needs of users and students of American Sign Language (ASL).
This means that while a broad range of concepts is covered, many English words are not included. In some cases this is simply because their signs are used infrequently. Other terms do not have a corresponding sign; their meanings are communicated quite differently in sign languagefor example, as an integrated component of some other sign, as a nonmanual cue accompanying a sign, as a pointing (or "indexing") movement, or by fingerspelling.
Conversely, there are strings of words in this book, phrases and entire clauses that would be out of place in a standard dictionary. Here they represent concepts expressed in one unified signing gesture in ASL. Examples are I love you and Now I remember.
Sources of Signs
For the most part, the signs in this dictionary are firmly established elements of American Sign Language. Some signs from systems of Manually Coded English have also been included, to reflect recent borrowings into ASL. In addition, the dictionary includes a few fingerspelled forms, like ha ha, which are considered to be ASL signs, although no attempt is made to give a comprehensive listing of these terms.
Although some regional variation is represented, the signs have been collected primarily from up and down the East coast. The general tendency is for these signs to spread westward.
Usage Levels: The Social Appropriateness of Signs and Their English Translations
Like English and every other language, American Sign Language contains its share of terms that would be inappropriate in polite conversation. If a dictionary is to present an accurate picture of a language, it must include even vulgar or disparaging terms. In this dictionary, to prevent the novice from inadvertently insulting a conversational partner by unwittingly using a sign that would cause offense, cautionary notations or labels have been included for such signs. For example, a note at the end of the description of the sign might indicate that the sign is used disparagingly, or a cautionary usage label may be added to an English translation.
How to Find a Sign
All entries, whether words or phrases and whether common terms or proper nouns, are presented in large boldface type in a single alphabetical listing, following a strict letter-by-letter order that disregards spaces between words, for example ever, everlasting, ever since. An exception to this order is made for verb phrases, which are shown as a group.
Most signs can be found by looking them up under any of several English words or phrases. Only one of these, however, will set forth a complete description of the sign. That complete entry usually includes one or more part-of-speech labels (n. for noun, v. for verb, etc.), and a description of how to make the sign.
Additional words for concepts covered by that sign are often listed within the entry in small boldface type, although the list of words with equivalent or related meanings is by no means exhaustive. Typical examples may be seen at the entry for confident, which lists the related form confidence as another meaning for that sign, and the entry for earn, which notes that the same sign is used for deserve, income, salary, and wages. Where appropriate, these additional words are given usage labels (e.g., informal, slang, vulgar, diminutive) to emphasize that the sign portrayed in that entry may be interpreted in those various ways depending upon the context and manner in which it is used, and that it should therefore be used with some caution.
A cross-reference entry, at its own alphabetical listing, simply sends the reader to one or more complete entries, where appropriate signs will be found. An example is the entry for fatigue, which states: See signs for tired, weak.
An additional type of cross reference, signaled by the instruction to "See also sign for...," is found within complete entries. This occurs when the signs for two different words are interchangeable. For example, at achieve there is an instruction to "See also sign for successful," while at successful we find a matching instruction to "See also sign for achieve." This means that either sign may be used to represent either concept.
Because the range of meanings for a sign may differ widely from the meaning of its closest English translation, the relationship between a main entry and its cross references all of which share the same sign is sometimes obscure to a person who is not fluent in ASL. Although a cross reference may be virtually synonymous with the main entry (officer refers to entries for captain and chief), it is more likely to be linked to the main entry in some more nebulous, conceptual fashion, without being directly substitutable for it in an English sentence (at farm the reader is referred not only to the noun agriculture, but also to the adjective sloppy). Occasionally, the dictionary suggests a connection, as at the entry for alert, which reads: "See sign for insomnia. Shared idea of remaining awake."
Multiple Entries for the Same Word
Often there are two or more separate entries for the same word, each marked by a small identifying superscript number. These numerically sequenced groups of entries are of three sorts:
(1) Entries that have different signs because they differ in meaning (country1 "foreign nation" and country2 "rural land") or in part of speech (fish1 a noun and fish2 a verb). Each one is handled separately as a complete entry.
(2) Separate entries for a word that, though not varying in meaning or part of speech, may be expressed by two or more interchangeable signs. In these cases each numbered entry includes a sign and sign description, but only the first entry in the group is defined; those that follow are simply labeled "alternate sign." See, for example, the two interchangeable signs at the entries nosy1 and nosy2.
(3) Entries with at least one of the terms in the group are cross referenced to a different sign elsewhere in the alphabet e.g., pile1, a complete main entry, and pile2, a cross reference to amount and stack. Cross-reference entries are always shown last in any such sequence.
How to Make a Sign
Formation of the sign is illustrated at every complete entry and at every entry labeled "alternate sign," sometimes by a single picture but more often by a series of full-torso line drawings that take the reader step by step through a sequence of movements. Arrows show the direction in which the hands move, and the accompanying description gives any special instructions needed on how to execute the movement.
All the illustrations demonstrate how a right-handed signer would execute each sign as seen by the listener; the model's right hand is on the reader's left. A left-handed signer should transpose the illustrated hands as well as the arrows when forming the signin other words, treating the picture as if it were the reader's mirror image.
In a sequence of pictures, the illustrations in a circle focus on some significant portion of the movement, often the final position of the hands. The reader should execute the signs in the order shown, from left to right.
Each illustration is supplemented by a verbal description giving detailed instructions for making the sign. The formation of the sign is described in terms of the four component parts of a sign. These four parts are: (1) handshape, (2) location in relation to the body, (3) movement of the hands, and (4) orientation of the palms.
In cases where the rhythm of the movement is a critical component of the sign's formation, the description may state that, for example, the hands "move quickly" or the sign is "made with deliberate movement." An indication is also given when a double movement is required or when a movement is to be "repeated"that is, made two or more times.
Within the description, italicized terms such as A hand and C hand refer to handshapes shown in the chart of the Manual Alphabet (p. 511). Terms such as 1 hand or 10 hand refer to handshapes for numbers. Other special handshapes, such as bent hand, open hand, and flattened C hand, are shown on page xii.
Beginning most descriptions is a bracketed memory aid, or hint. These hints use a number of devices to help the reader understand the nature of the sign and better remember how it is made. For a pantomimic sign, for example, the reader may be instructed to perform an appropriate imitative action, as at golf: [Mime swinging a golf club]. The hint for an iconic sign might point out the sign's resemblance to the thing depicted or to some aspect of that thing, as at camp [Shape of a tent], or at ear: [Location of an ear].
The hint for a compound sign (one formed by combining two or more independent signs) tells the reader which signs are to be combined, as at income1, where the hint is: [money + earn]. Superscript numbers specify which of the multiple entries for the same word the reader may use in forming the compound. For example, the hint [gather1 + meeting] at conference1 reveals that one may form conference using either of the two signs for gather, although both the description and the illustration refer only to gather1. The sign for a compound often involves some streamlining of the component signs, which is reflected in the description.
An initialized sign is formed with the handshape for the relevant letter in the English term, taken from the American Manual Alphabet (see chart on p. 511). The hint for hum is: [Initialized sign using m indicating the sound that is made when humming].
Fingerspelled signs use the Manual Alphabet to spell out a short word or abbreviation, as indicated by such hints as: [Fingerspell n-o] at no.
Two special notations used in the hints need a word of explanation. First, an occasional reference is made to "the finger used for feelings." Signs made with the bent middle finger often refer to concepts of sensitivity, feelings, or personal contact; examples include the signs for mercy, sick, and network. Second, allusions to the "male" and "female" areas of the head relate to the fact that signs referring to men, such as father and uncle, begin at or are made near the forehead, whereas signs referring to women, such as mother and aunt, begin at or are made near the chin. A clear example of the importance of this distinction may be seen in the signs for cousin, made near the temple for a male cousin and near the lower cheek to refer to a female cousin.
Abbreviations Used in This Dictionary
pl. n. plural noun
v. phrase verb phrase