Deconstructing the terms: ASL and Sign Language

In one of ASL classes in 2016, an ASL student expressed a sentence in ASL (translated as) "I grow up speaking English and French. Now I'm learning sign language".

Deaf ASL instructor purposefully replied in ASL, "Which language?".
Student: "sign language".
Instructor: "Yes, which language?". Again a few times. Finally, a classmate helped out, "ASL". The student suddenly looked enlightened.

Quoted from a September 2017 article in The Washington Post:

"... a mixture of spoken English and sign language. But 'it’s not fair to either side,' he said. 'It’s not complete English, but it’s not complete sign, either.'" (talking about simcom).

What are the problems in this paragraph? "English and sign language". Another, "English and sign". Why was the term "ASL" being downgraded to "sign language" and even further demoted to "sign". The use of those terms is commonly seen in everyday literature.

Food for thought. Video produced in 2015 from the idea in circa 2011.

The terms ASL and sign language appeared to be structured within the hierarchy of language power below spoken language. The spoken languages, such as English, French, and so on, don't use "speech language" after these words. E.g. English Speech Language (ESL), Spanish Speech Language (SSL), and so on. Never used?

Why must we use "sign language" in such as American Sign Language, German Sign Language, and so on. The term "ASL" is an abbreviation of "American Sign Language". This term remains in its hierachial implication.

One of the characteristics of logocentrism is the hierarchy (which links to superiority in "Center and the Margin/Other" hierarchy). The use of "sign language" suggests a position in the hierarchy below spoken language.

To reclaim our languages, redefine the hierarchy and terms. Use the terms "Ameslan" (coined by Fant in the 1960s) or "Aslian" (coined by a Deaf blogger in his post) instead of American Sign Language. It would work similarly for suggested terms such as Japanslan, Polishlan, Germanslan, Frenchlan, and such but "Auslan" for Australian Sign Language is already a long time established term.

Words (labels) are a powerful reflection of the political, cultural, and social construction. Native language reflects a person of its cultural and historical upbringing along with its innermost core of beliefs, values, attitude and norms within its marginal world or dominating world.

ASL/Ameslan as Language

Rather than saying "ASL is a sign language", say that "Ameslan (or ASL) is a language." No need to say "sign" language unless talking about a modality to specifiy. It's a language that is sufficient. It's empowering.

No spoken languages are defined as "speech language" where the "speech" is omitted. It's not needed because it's on the top of the hierarchy. It reflects the hearing society's inner belief that their spoken language is central to speech. Yet, neuroscience studies debunk this that both signed and spoken languages activate the same linguistic regions of the brain. So, ASL is a language.


Do we say "English Speech Language" (ESL), Japanese Speech Language (JSL), and so on? No, the latter part "speech language" is omitted.

That goes the same for all signed languages. Forget the postfix-like term of "sign language". That is, for examples: Ameslan, Auslan, Polishlan, Germanlan (or suggest a better spelling), Frenchlan, and so on.

The term "Ameslan" for American Sign Language isn't new. It was used in the 1960s and I decided to relive this beautiful word. The term "Auslan" is the currently official term for Australian Sign Language.

The term "Ameslan", that I rather use, reflects language-oriented, culture-oriented, and people-focused identity. It refers to Deaf people who grow up with the identity of visual-spatial language and culture.

Keep the old terms

Of course, keep the old terms in reference to the historical and contextual meanings. Just to expand prespectives defined by new terms in contexts. There are nothing bad about these long-time terms but they help us look at inter-woven perspectives of phonocentrism in this society and language.

Written in 2011, edited in 2017.

Related posts: Phonocentrism and sign language