Friday, October 21, 2011

WHAT THE F*** DO YOU KNOW?!?!?: Should ASL Profanity Be Openly Taught?

I recently went online and decided to look up any new Deaf- and ASL-related books available on Amazon. One of them caught my eye. It was a book on the “dirty words” in Sign Language. It made me consider whether it was appropriate to teach the profanity of ASL to new students or not.

I’ve heard the debate. When James Woodward came out with his two books, “Signs of Drug Use” and “Signs of Sexual Behavior,” there was quite a bit of an uproar regarding whether that inside knowledge should be thrust out there for anyone to learn. The simple fact is that many people just want to know the profanity. They think it’s funny. Now I can call my teacher an A-hole without him knowing, or whatever. Many Deaf people felt that ASL, being their language, shouldn’t be something just given out, but rather knowledge earned.

But there is a need out there for those who are serious about learning the language…especially interpreters-in-training. They do need to know that information. How can you possibly interpret in a courtroom if you don’t know the signs for sexually-oriented concepts? The trouble lies with who has control of and access to this information.

I’ve seen people say that if a person is serious about learning ASL, then they should find a Deaf friend and ask them how to do the mature words. OK. Good idea…if it’s possible. Some people are not sure how to bring it up and some people don’t know a Deaf person well enough to ask. Although an interpreter has to overcome a lot of feelings of embarrassment (especially working with culturally Deaf people who are known for their candidness and bite), it doesn’t mean it’s easy for them to say, “So, Jared, can you please tell me in what contexts I would use this sign for F--k and which times this sign is better?” May seem easy if that kind of thing comes naturally to you, but most of the time it doesn’t.

The book in question seems to have gotten some pretty good reviews—even from Deaf individuals. So, I’m inclined to think it isn’t as controversial over 30 years after James Woodward had to deal with the uproar. I took a look inside and the pictures are poor enough that I feel you would need to already have a working knowledge of the book in order to understand the descriptions anyway. Nevertheless, I ordered it. It’s titled, "Dirty Sign Language: Everyday Slangfrom "What's Up?" to "F*%# Off!" I’ll check it out and see what my side is on this debate. In the meantime, what do you feel about teaching sign language students the “dirty” words?


  1. HI there Michelle,

    Good post. One of the things that's interesting to me about profanity in sign language is that its difficult to provide the sign in a generic way. Meaning that one has to add expression, NMM and the like to provide it the proper context or accurate usage. Therefore intrinsically connecting the visual image of the person signing it to the word. I admit, when some of my close deaf friends talk about sex it grosses me out. It's a visual language after all, and i can't separate the semantics from the messenger. It's like have "the talk" with your parents.

    In spoken language it seems that the audio track is less impactful on one's image or persona. Audio fades and is forgotten over time, while the essence of what we see seems to make a more indelible impression.

    Consider how much our society puts on how we look, dress or appear and we may begin to see the connection.

  2. Thank you, Wing Butler. Very good points.