In a series of posts beginning with this one, Ocean attempts to address a subject of which she has received much communication – Pagan Sign Language. To be more precise, how to express Pagan words and concepts in American Sign Language, also known as ASL. Because this can be a complex subject with several overlapping issues, it requires some depth to really discuss in a comprehensive manner. Individuals with an interest in this subject are encouraged to read all the posts in this series to gain the complete picture of Ocean’s thoughts on the matter.
Often I get comments left here at the Crossroads, or more commonly messages sent to my email, coming from ASL students asking me for signs for Pagan vocabulary. Such comments and messages usually lament the lack of established signs for common Pagan words as witch or solstice…or phrases such as “So Mote It Be” or “And Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will.” They often talk about how they have asked about such in their classes, only to receive a blank stare from their instructors:
I think often the reason students are searching for signs for things like pagan, witch, solstice, etc., is because while learning we come across a plethora of Christian signs, Jewish signs, even Muslim signs; but nothing for Pagans. I asked my teacher in class about it and she was only able to offer a blank look. And full dictionaries online don’t offer much help either, thus looking for specific signs.
I’m identifying a number of issues associated with such messages. The first issue is the fact that the majority of them come from individuals who are still relatively beginners in their study of the American Sign Language…and who thus have not yet really reached the point of understanding it and utilizing it as a language of its own, with its own grammar and syntax. In another words, they are still “Englishing” their ASL. They are still basically thinking in English and signing in English.
When I go to YouTube and watch all these videos of people (usually teenagers and young adults) demonstrating their signing skills – oftentimes by signing a song – around 90% of the time they are NOT signing ASL…they are signing English. They might be using conceptually accurate ASL signs…but they are still utilizing them in an English format, and signing basically the same sentences and the same word order as the lyrics themselves. I like to think of this as “dictionary signing” – this sign for that word, in proper order to follow the English syntax. Sure, it might be “accurate and comprehensible” – but it’s not really ASL, and truth be told…it’s kinda boring to watch. You don’t get all the little nuances of ASL that make it the rich and expressive language that it is.
As an example: if you go to YouTube and search for ASL versions of the Bruno Mars song “Just the Way You Are” you will find a whole list of videos of individuals signing this song. However, in spite of the fact that the title often states “ASL”…time and again what I see isn’t really ASL. It’s Conceptually Accurate Signed English (CASE), also sometimes known as PSE – Pidgin Signed English. Sometimes, though…it’s not even conceptually accurate. I see folks using the wrong concept for the sign “just” (it shouldn’t be signed with a J on the palm). I also see people signing “are” with the crossed fingers, which you would never see in true ASL. Blech. Sorry folks…it might be a good effort, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. This is not to say that such videos are bad and that the signing skills of the individuals making them is horrendous, but I’m not going to lie…with only a few exceptions, I wasn’t overly impressed. Nor did I see very many individuals in these videos whose skills left me feeling comfortable that they could successfully interpret a ritual.
So why am I bringing up this talk about signed musical videos in a discussion of Pagan Sign Language? Bear with me…it will start to make sense as we go along.
The fact that so many of these videos show people signing what in actuality is a manual-visual form of English is understandable…because in the beginning, that’s pretty much all you know. You take a sign language class and most likely you are taught ASL vocabulary…but not ASL syntax and grammar. You come into class and you learn that this is the sign for woman, and that’s the sign for man. One class you might learn signs related to people and places…the next class you learn signs related to time – past, present, and future. And on it goes.
It’s not that there is something absolutely wrong with this (although some instructors would object to such an approach), but it can lead to the misconception that just like English, in ASL there is a sign for every word and it’s merely a matter of finding the right dictionary or the right person who can show you what that sign is. If there is a sign for Christian, Christmas, and Amen – then there has to be a sign for Pagan, Samhain, and So Mote It Be…right?
Wellll…not exactly. You see, folks – ASL is not English…and Paganism is not Christianity. In the same way that you cannot just simply apply English rules to developing an ASL vocabulary; neither can you apply Christian rules to the defining of Pagan concepts.
Many of the concepts in Pagan spiritual belief are rather esoteric, and as such they often have a much deeper meaning than what the words in and of themselves might convey. And that definition can vary from individual to individual, depending on one’s perspectives, training, background, spiritual path, and a number of other factors.
By the same token, how these concepts are translated into ASL can vary from individual to individual. Two different people can sign the same Pagan word or phrase in two different ways, and neither one would necessarily be wrong. It all depends on your perspective, on how you visualize the meaning of the word/phrase and how you choose to express that meaning.
To continue this discussion of signing Pagan vocabulary, please continue to “Thoughts on Pagan Sign Language – part two”