This is the second 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 first post, I discussed the challenges of many ASL students in freeing their minds from English grammatical rules and not thinking of ASL from a purely “dictionary” context. Yes…there many ASL dictionaries out there which contain an extensive vocabulary of signs. Such dictionaries can be a valuable tool for those studying ASL. However, it is very doubtful that any of them are going to contain signs of a Pagan nature.
By the same token most sign language teachers, not being of Pagan spirituality themselves, are probably not going to be of much help when it comes to providing information about signs for Pagan vocabulary, or at least ideas for expressing Pagan concepts in a manual-visual manner. And even if they do have a Pagan background, coming up with such signs may still prove to be a challenge. It’s like I stated during an interview in which I talked about Pagan Sign Language:
The constant inquiries I see about ASL signs for words like “solstice” tell me that there are people who are needing to sign these words to other people, whether in conversation or ritual. But that we haven’t found this ASL resource tells me we’re not being public enough – at least, public in a way that pagan terminology can be owned and disseminated by Deaf Pagans. I think this pretty much sums it up. We’re not public enough, and we’re not community enough that we have reached that point where Pagan terminology – or signs, as the case might be – can be owned and disseminated by Deaf Pagans. And until that happens, I’m not sure how successful any kind of widespread attempt to develop a Pagan ASL Vocabulary is going to be.
However, I think that the above is being misunderstood by some to imply that a Pagan ASL Vocabulary does not exist:
…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. Even if i don’t use them in conversation, I’d like to at least know they exist, which they sort of don’t.
It’s not so much that these signs “sort of don’t exist,” although admittedly there is some truth to this. It’s that developing such a vocabulary requires one to think outside of the box, so to speak…and utilize skills which I suspect many of those who are sending me these messages have not yet developed.
In my above interview comment, I stated that we’re not community enough to have reached that point where an establish Pagan ASL vocabulary can be developed. While this is true up to a point, I think there are other issues to be explored here – issues which require examining the characteristics of both Paganism and ASL.
Modern-day Neo-Paganism can generally be defined as an autonomous, independent, experiential religion that bases itself predominately on one’s individual relationship with the Divine. As Pagan author Laura Wildman explains:
Paganism, as a movement, is best described as being non-unified, not structured nor highly organized. Although individual groups and traditions may be extremely organized and, in some cases, have a hierarchical structure, in general we’re an independent lot who hate to be told what to do, believe, or not believe.
But it seems that when it comes to trying to learn ASL, these Pagan principles get thrown out the window. In the quest to demonstrate a proficiency in sign language, it appears as if these students have forgotten how to “return to the source,” and are instead running around looking for anything or anyone that can provide the answers they seek.
Let me utilize a comparison here. How many of us get at least a tad frustrated with those “Harry Potter wannabes” who go swarming around; demanding that we teach them this or that spell, share the words to be used in doing invocations, and basically explain how to be a witch? How many of us have heaved a big sigh, and then (not so) patiently attempted to clarify that spells work best when you create your own, invocations are more meaningful if you write them yourself, and becoming a witch requires walking your talk and doing the work?
Part of the problem with trying to respond to such requests is very simply this – Paganism means different things to different followers.
Stop and think what this means, my friends. It is that very diversity, and that absence of a sole dogmatic belief system or universally established liturgy that is the popular appeal of Paganism to many.
But at the same time, it also creates a challenge in developing a singular ASL Pagan Vocabulary that can encompass that diversity.
It is much easier to create signs for Christianity or Judaism, because for the most part these religions have an established tenet and a singular liturgy that all practitioners of such subscribe to. Thus getting agreement on what various concepts mean and how they should be expressed is less of a challenge.
But when you have members of the Pagan Community discussing amongst themselves various viewpoints of what words such as “witch” mean…being able to come up with one single sign that everyone can agree on becomes more problematic.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had recently with a fellow Pagan…who although a non-signer with no background in Deaf Culture or the like, was able to hit the nail on the head:
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.
To continue this discussion of signing Pagan vocabulary, please continue to “Thoughts on Pagan Sign Language – part three”