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.

Words found in the wild: this cite was 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.

The term "sign language" is a bit confusing. Does it emphasizes on modality. Or does it refer to language? Ameslan (ASL) or any other signed language is a language. This term "sign language" somehow itself leans toward an emphasis of modality.

"Signing" is to "speech" as Ameslan and English are to languages as "American Sign Language" or "ASL" are to "English Speech Language" or "ESL" as "sign language" is to "speech language".

"I learned sign language a little." Wonderful, which language? "Sign language" Which? "Sign language?" Yes, which? "Sign language!" Nice, I speak ASL and write/read speech language. "What? Speech language? Which language.. uh, oh!"

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

The power distance of words

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 (the oppressed) or dominating world (the oppressor).

One day in 2004, I came across a line that struck me in the book "No Full Stops in India" by Mark Tully. In his book, Tully noted:

"It has often been said that if you want to destroy a people, first destroy its language."

One of the characteristics of logocentrism is the hierarchy (which links to superiority in "Center and the Margin/Other" hierarchy) based on dichotomies.

The terms "ASL" and "sign language" are somehow inherently structured within the hierarchy of language power below speech language. The spoken languages, such as English, French, and so on, don't use "speech language" after these words. Imagine 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. As the term "ASL" is an abbreviation of "American Sign Language", this term remains in its hierachial implication. Through words, hearing people can rip the (sign) language from (Deaf) people and its (Deaf) culture.

Hearing people practice phonocentric power to fix deafness yet keep sign language for themselves (cultural appropriation), such as ASL courses for hearing students, baby sign language (another argument in my other post), and signing in music and drama.

Redefine the hierarchy and terms. To reclaim our language, culture, and people as one, 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 the term "Auslan" for Australian Sign Language is already a long time established, official term.

With the term Ameslan, it embodies language, Deaf people, and Deaf culture integrated as one that if one tries to take our language, they pick up our Deaf bodies as well.

Ameslan as a Language

Rather than saying "ASL is a sign language", say that "ASL is a language." Ameslan 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. Neuroscience studies debunk this "speech-centered" belief, showing that both signed and spoken languages activate the same linguistic regions of the brain. So, ASL is a sign 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. Time to relive this beautiful word.

The term "Ameslan", that I rather use, can refer not only to language, but also Deaf people and Deaf culture and the identity. In our Ameslan culture, we Ameslan people speak Ameslan. For Auslan, Ameslan, and other, "Deaf" is a global term that defines us from hearing people around the world.


The word "sign" is too broad and has a long list of definitions. For a word in signed languages, it's called "sign" instead of conceptually "word". This subordinate "sign" makes me cringe. "Sign" can be used in some contexts (for the lack of a better word), but in context of word or the concept/meaning of word, use the word word for ASL words. ASL signs are words in themselves. As for modality, maybe "signing" for the lack of a better word in English.

Keep the old terms

Of course, keep the old terms "sign", "sign language", and so on in reference to the historical periods and contextual meanings. 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. For future from now, reframe the words that reflect change of worldview.

Written in 2011, edited in 2017.

Related posts

Related posts: Phonocentrism and sign language