How to sign DEAF

By Bill Vicars.

Regarding the sign for DEAF.

A very common question from students is "Should the sign for DEAF start near the mouth and move to the ear -- or should it start near the ear and move toward the mouth?" This question comes up a lot since you will see the sign DEAF done both ways "out in the world."

A fellow teacher suggested the following facebook post:

I watched the post and thought it was quite delightful. The signer in the video (Holly Roth) seems to have a wonderful attitude.

Holly did her own survey and according to her survey -- Hearing people tend to do the sign DEAF starting at the mouth whereas Deaf people tend to do the sign DEAF starting at the ear. She then asked a linguist who laughed and said that the sequence of the sign DEAF depended on the preceding sign. (For example, if you sign MOTHER DEAF you would tend to do the sign DEAF from mouth to ear -- and if you signed FATHER DEAF you would tend to do the sign DEAF from ear to mouth.)

She mused, "Oh I see! So "that is how it is."

But if you will observe the poster's own signing in the video after she signs ANALYZE (at 2:02) and DECIDE (at 2:09) she proceeds to go ahead and sign DEAF -- each time "ear to mouth" -- even though arguably (and demonstrably) both preceding signs ANALYZE and DECIDE end closer to the mouth than the ear. If the theory that the sequence of the sign DEAF depends on what you signed just prior to signing DEAF were "true" then Holly would have signed DEAF mouth-to-ear. She didn't. Which is a rather strong vote against the theory.

It is my belief that the idea that "whatever sign precedes the DEAF sign influences the production of the sign" is largely conjecture. (Let me be clear -- I think the idea is wrong.) Unless "linguists" have actually video recorded, analyzed, and then documented a statistically significant "coarticulation" influence (things signed at the same time) of the sign preceding the sign DEAF -- they (and all of us) need to be careful about spreading conjecture as if it were fact.

One of these semesters I might just assign a research assistant to watch a statistically significant number of videos of various native Deaf signers to document the sequence of the sign DEAF and its antecedent (the sign that came before DEAF) in hundreds of native sign samples. THEN we could say with some confidence that coarticulation (the preceding sign) is responsible (and/or to what degree it is responsible) for the choice of which version of DEAF is used.

If the "coarticulation" (preceding sign) theory is inaccurate then how do we explain the difference in the sequence for the sign for DEAF? I feel there are several likely reasons for why the direction of the sign for DEAF varies.

1. The old EAR-CLOSED version of the sign would evolve into an "ear-to-mouth" version. 2. There is a tendency (for Deaf who are interacting with non-signing Hearing people) to sign "I don't hear" by pointing at the ear (with a slight head shake) and then sign I don't talk by pointing at the mouth. Notice how there is a (historical) phrase "deaf and dumb" but the phrase "dumb and deaf" is not common? 3. A tendency for Hearing website owners to show and claim that the mouth-to-ear version is "THE" right way. 4. A tendency for Deaf website owners to do the sign from "ear-to-mouth."

Both versions will continue to exist for a long while. I believe the ear-to-mouth version is more representative of the type of signing done by native Deaf ASL signers who attended state residential schools for the Deaf . I believe the ear-to-mouth version would normally have become dominant much earlier except for the fact that certain sites are claiming that mouth-to-ear is THE right way to do it. For example, SigningSavvy (as of 2016/03/02) states "After consulting with our panels of both deaf signers and CODAS, they all agree that the sign DEAF should go mouth to ear." (Source: Miller, J., "DEAF", Signing Savvy, retrieved from March 2, 2016).

Which (in the context of the above mentioned "survey") leads me to wonder -- what is that fellow's status? (Hearing or Deaf?)"About" page..., ah, yah -- John Miller - Hearing. Apparently learned ASL in college. Don't misunderstand me. I respect his work ethic. I'm just pointing out that he falls under the "Hearing signer" category in Holly Roth's survey.

Additionally the model at ASLPro does it mouth to ear. That site seems (as of 2016) to mostly use Hearing individuals as the models.

But what if we look at Deaf models, Deaf instructors, and Deaf authors? Do we (similar to the survey results of Holly Roth) start to see a preponderance (a larger number) of signers doing the sign DEAF ear-to-mouth?

In a word: Yes.

Consider the DEAF entry at Here we have Jolanta Lapiak, a native signer to native signers, (that is, culturally Deaf of Deaf family) with Deaf relatives from Deaf communities from Europe to North America and she has been signing 24/7 all her life in family life and Deaf communities. Only 5-10% of all deaf children are born Deaf to Deaf parents. (Source: retrieved 3/2/2016). Jolanta demonstrates the ear-to-mouth sign as her main entry for her DEAF page and relegates the mouth-to-ear sign as a "regional/phonological variation."

Okay, that is just one example. (But an awesome example eh?) Now go to "" and compare how DEAF is signed by Deaf people all over the world. If you keep a tally it comes out to something close to 3 out of 25 signers doing the sign DEAF "mouth-to-ear," four signers doing the sign at the ear only, and eighteen signers doing the sign from ear-to-mouth. Let me state that again: As of 3/2/2016, eighteen of the models at Spreadthesign do the sign DEAF from ear-to-mouth -- compared to only three individuals signing DEAF from mouth-to-ear. (And honestly, one of those three seems to be a little "off" in her signing" style.)

Do the math 18/3 = 16%. Which is to say that six times more Deaf (at arguably the "largest" collection of signs on the planet) do the sign DEAF starting at the ear.

My question to you: Do you want to sign DEAF in a way that is similar to the signing done by just 16% of the world Deaf Community and a preponderance of "Hearing" language models or would you rather do the sign in the manner of 84% of the world Deaf Community and a preponderance of Deaf language models and authors?

Reposted with permission by Bill Vicars,

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