How Internet Slang Enters ASL Vernacular

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As the Oxford dictionary updates its lexicon with Internet-y terms such as “lolcat” (a photograph of a cat accompanied by a humorous and typically misspelled caption) and “hawt” (an informal spelling of hot), speakers of American Sign Language (ASL) adapt to tech-lingo as well. Change in ASL happens the same way as any other language, with new trends and ideas cropping up organically. The words that stick will be added to the dictionaries. However, ASL doesn't have one official dictionary.

There is no official ASL website, so multiple grassroots sites provide an open community for the ever-changing language. Bill Vicars, who compiles Lifeprint, starts his research by, “do[ing] a literature review, [and] compar[ing] numerous respected sign language dictionaries and textbooks to see how the sign is demonstrated in those dictionaries.” Along with surveys and online debate, Vicars attempts to identify the most used sign for a specific term. Still, not everyone in the Deaf community uses Lifeprint, and as new words are created, a great variety in their respective signs emerges.

Douglas Ridloff, the current coordinator of ASL Slam, an online space for Deaf performing artists to share poetry and storytelling in ASL, commented on the different ways terms for new technology come about; “With words like 'Glide' [a live video messaging app] or 'Instagram', we've started to see signs emerge. As a collective, we see various signs until one emerges as the agreed upon sign by a collaboration of the community.” For Glide, the CEO got involved, as it was key that he collaborated in deciding on a definitive sign. However, for Instagram, no representative has been involved in the sign decision process, and no official consensus has been reached in the ASL community.

Words such as “selfie”, “emoji”, and “duckface” are being used in ASL, but with a wide variety of signs. To see these new signs and how they differ, click here.

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