Homonyms in sign language

From time to time, ASL students, especially in the ASL 101/111 beginner courses, asked a Deaf instructor in ASL (translated as) "How do I know the difference between [sign] and [sign]". Or, sometimes they expressed their confusion for a homonym pair of ASL words.

What is homonym

Homonym means each of two or more words having the same spelling and/or pronunciation/production but different meanings and origins. Like spoken languages, signed languages have homonyms.

An example of homophone (or "homosign") in ASL is the sign 'BROWN' and 'BEER' (two movements -- though, the movement of BROWN may be one or two repetitions). Both ASL signs BROWN and BEER have different meanings and origins. An example in English is "flower" and "flour".

How to tell the differnce?

Occasionally, an ASL student would ask a Deaf ASL instructor "why are this sign and that sign the same production?" Or, I'd get an email, "[word] and [word] look the same -- how do you know which word you mean?"

Context. Subtleties of the production (pronunciation). And practice ASL conversations with others and learn contexts. English has plenty of homophones and homographs. If you're a hearing person, I suppose you don't get confused between 'flower' and 'flour'?

Many Deaf people native to ASL have been signing them ever since and many homonyms have not really dawned on them. Sometimes, the students with their fresh eye (like a Zen beginner's mind) surprised Deaf instructors and Deaf native signers alike that we hadn't thought of some of the pairs of homonyms before.

Unforgettably, the first time a student asked me how he can identify two signs: the number "9" and the letter "F", I thought "Oh my gosh, I have never had thought of it." Next year, another student asked this same question. I continue to learn more pairs of homonyms from learners. :D

Context, context, context

Rather than practicing vocabulary alone, practice conversations with partners in pairs or trios. Conversations allow students practice vocabulary, syntax, meaning negotiations, asking for clarification or elaboration, and so on all in one. In classes, I kept encouraging students to go beyond the guidelines of "Signer A:.. and Signer B:.. " on the powerpoint screen. Chats surrounding the topic. Add adjectives. Add details in your conversations. Use vocabulary from previous classes.

Just for fun. As of this writing in a goofy mood, I grabbed my camera and turned to my nine-year-old bilingual girl who has never confused the number nine with the letter F. I raised a single, standalone syllable F/9 out of the blue sky. Out of context with no explanation.

Thoughts raced in her head, seeking a context for this meaning. One of her some thougths was "Is this some kind of a trick?" "What is going on?" "Why did Mom do that?" "Strange." "Is that a F or 9?" That is the context of being-out-of-context.

At her age, she wondered whether it was a F or 9. If she were an adult, she probably would think of a gesture which means something else in other countries. Note that F/9 in ASL is a word, not a gesture (because the processing in the brain is different for a spoken/signed word from a manual/vocal gesture).

More homonyms

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One time, an user sent an email to handspeak.com, "I noticed that the signs for words 'also' and 'same' which are exactly same. Could you please check?" -- Email (2021). Hmm... :)

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