This is the third in a series of posts in which 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.
In my previous post (see part two), I ended with a quote from a Pagan friend, which I feel merits repeating here:
You can verbalize “witch,” without committing yourself to a specific idea of what you mean by the word; but when you sign “witch” (or any other word) you are, in a sense, committing yourself to a certain view of the word by how you visualize it and express it with your sign.
This quote expresses well one of the significant components of American Sign Language that must be taken into consideration when trying to develop a Pagan ASL Vocabulary.
It is important to bear in mind that ASL is not merely manual English, or a way of communicating non-verbally with your hands. Rather, it is a language of its own, with its own grammar and syntax. ASL has its own vocabulary of signs which is essentially non-dependent on the English language. Some people mistakenly assume that American Sign Language is a complex form of pantomime, a “picture” or “conceptual” language. Though ASL employs the face, body, hands, and surrounding space effectively, some of the signs bear little or no resemblance to the thoughts they convey. For example, the sign conveying the idea of “make” uses both hands in a fist handshape, with one fist on top of the other with a twisting motion. Though common, this sign does not clearly depict its meaning to a non-signer; it is non-iconic.
However, while individual signs themselves may or may not be conceptual; the language itself is conceptually based – speakers of ASL communicate through concepts, not words. The signs are used to convey those concepts, not merely as individual words to be strung together to create sentences. In ASL the signs become the concept – expressing ideas in and of themselves.
This is beautifully demonstrated in a scene from “Children of A Lesser God,” the theatrical production that was later made into a movie starring Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin and William Hurt. In this scene Sarah, a Deaf woman attempts to share her thoughts about sign language, being deaf, and maintaining her own identity with her hearing husband James:
Well, my brain understands a lot;
and my eyes are my ears;
and my hands are my voice;
and my language, my speech, my ability to communicate is as great as yours.
Greater, maybe, because I can communicate to you in one image an idea more complex than you can speak to each other in fifty words.
For example, the sign “to connect,” a simple sign—
but it means so much more when it is moved between us like this.
Now it means to be joined in a shared relationship, to be individual yet as one.
A whole concept just like that…
A whole concept…just like that.
Indeed, ASL is just like that. A few signs used together to communicate an idea so rich, so complex, so full of image…that trying to find the words to convey it in English sometimes feels like an impossible task.
But herein lies the challenge in developing that Pagan ASL Vocabulary – in order to communicate that idea, one has to have a clear sense of the meaning of the concept they wish to convey. And as I have mentioned before, that meaning can vary from individual to individual, and even from situation to situation.
For example, let’s take the word “witch.” This word conjures up a lot of different images for people, and how it is expressed in ASL conveys those images. If one was to check out the word witch in an ASL book or an on-line ASL video dictionary, most likely the signs you will find convey the image of an ugly old hag with a large warty nose, going around hexing people.
This is a view of the word that most Pagans are not willing to commit themselves to.
Many of the messages I receive have come from individuals who having researched and found this sign themselves, reject it and refuse to use it. I don’t blame them…I don’t use these signs myself. But if one is going to reject such signs, then what’s the solution? How does one find or create an alternative?
That, my friends…is the million dollar question, for which there is no simple cut-and-dried answer.
However, in my next post I will attempt to provide some ideas by which perhaps you can discover your own answers…
NOTE: To learn more about specifically translating Pagan words (such as “witch”) and Pagan phrases (such as “And It Harm None, Do As Ye Will), check out Ocean’s post discussing this topic at: