Friday, October 17, 2014

Why ASL Doesn’t Have (Many) Idioms

I want to be clear. I am only a sort of semi-linguist. I’m a guy who likes to moonlight as a linguist. It’s like linguist cos-play. As I’ve gone through my long educational journey nearly all of my electives have been in linguistics, I’ve presented at linguistics conferences, I’ve published in linguistics journals. But I’m not a real linguist. There’s a lot I don’t know.

So, with that said, I’d like to discuss something I’ve been asked about over the years. It’s a personal theory that I think is backed up by what I know about ASL linguistics.

Now, I know this can be a dangerous statement. I recently read an article about, and watched a video by, a gentlemen who is also not a linguist but claims to have discovered what he thinks may be rhyme in ASL. Of course, this is preposterous. Rhyme in ASL has been a known quantity for decades, as evidenced by references I made to it in a paper ten years ago. In that paper I note that it’s not my discovery. It’s me referencing known published information. Yet somehow, this information escaped the gentlemen in this video, and the person who wrote the article about him, (who does claim to be a linguist). So I’ll admit that this information may be out there, and I will search it out, but for now here’s this.

The topic of idioms in ASL has been on my mind lately because I’ve been presenting on the topic again. For my masters thesis I researched how interpreters handle idioms while interpreting, “between an idiom rich language like English, and American Sign Language, which has a shortage of linguistic evidence to explicate its idiomatic tendencies.” (Santiago & Barrick, 2007). You can find the first half of that study in the linked reference. It’s been on my mind again after being invited to present and publish the second half of the study for the International Symposium on Sign Language Interpretation and Translation Research and presenting the related interpreting skills workshop Handling and Incorporation of Idioms locally. The crux of both studies is that English has many idioms, while ASL does not.

Whenever I present on idioms I introduce these quotes:

“1. Idioms consist of at least two or more words, which may or may not be contiguous, inflected or in a specific order. 2. Idioms are recurrent constructs...(Some degree of recurrence is necessary to distinguish idioms from metaphors and other style figures).” (Rosenthal, 1978, p. 1).

“It is interesting to note that ASL seems to have very few widely-used idioms, according to the standard definition of ‘idiom.’” (Cokely & Baker-Shenk, 1980, p. 119).

“We can show that things that are often called sign ‘idioms’: are often just ordinary signs that are difficult to translate into English” (Battison, 1998, p. 225).

We should also note that idioms are figurative, the meaning of the idiom does not equal the meaning of the individual lexical items within the idiom, and that the figurative meaning has higher incidence in the language than the literal meaning. So, “kick the bucket” means “die” more often than it means a literal kicking of a pail. Similarly, “TRAIN GONE SORRY” more often means “you missed the boat,” than “the train has left you have to wait for the next one.”

All of that is a long run up to trying to answer the question I get asked every time this topic comes up: Why doesn’t ASL have idioms? The first answer is, I don’t know. The second answer is, because ASL doesn’t need idioms.

Idioms exist in linear languages in order to provide variety. They are used to inject humor, emphasize a point, or to discuss uncomfortable topics. They function as long words rather than as phrases and are cognitively processed as long words. They are easy to use because they are set, recurring phrases. They’re fun, they’re rapport builders. They keep language interesting. So why doesn't ASL have many of them?

We know ASL fulfills all those linguistic functions. It’s not that ASL does not have ways of being interesting, or building rapport, or discussing uncomfortable topics. ASL absolutely has these functions. But ASL performs them differently. ASL has different tools, which may lead to less recurrence, because there is less need for recurrence. ASL has two things that linear languages do not, multiple articulators, and use of space. Basically, I think ASL simply has more ways of being figurative on the fly than linear languages have and because of this there’s less need for set recurrent constructions. So maybe that was a lot of set up for a simple answer, ASL doesn’t have many idioms because ASL doesn’t need idioms. ASL performs all those functions in different ways, ways that spoken languages cannot.

There may also be a component of age. ASL is a young language. Languages like English have been around for 1600 years or so. These older languages have had more time to develop set recurring constructs. There’s also a matter of distribution. Written languages have had the printing press for over 600 years. Through this, idioms in these languages were able to spread in a set form and persevere over time. ASL has only had an easily recorded easily distributable means of sharing frozen forms for the last 30 years. So maybe more idioms are coming. But maybe not.

Once I give this explanation in conversation I usually get asked this follow up, “Are you saying that ASL isn’t equal to other languages? What if ASL idioms are just different in structure than idioms in other languages?”

First, of course I’m not saying that ASL is any less of a language. That would be silly. It stands to reason that some languages have more idioms and some languages have less. The second question is more interesting, because it contradicts the premise behind the first. From William Stokoe on we’ve all been proving and trying to convince the world that ASL is a language just like any other language. One of the pillars of this effort has been showing that the features of ASL are just like the features of all other languages. So why would idioms be the one thing that has a radically different definition? In my mind, if idioms in ASL had a different structure than they do in all other languages that would be a strike against ASL as a full language. So my answer stands. ASL idioms have the same structure and parameters as idioms in all other languages, it’s just that ASL doesn’t need them.

So there it is, my semi-researched answer to a question I am asked frequently. None of it is really my own theory, it’s culled from what I know about linguistics. If you know something I don’t or have a question, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. If you want to know more about how ASL-English interpreters work with idioms please look for my two papers on the topic listed in the references.


Battison, R. (1998). Signs have parts. In C. Valli & C. Lucus (Eds.), Linguistics of American sign language: An introduction. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Cokely, D., & Baker-Shenk, C. (1980). American sign language: A teacher's resource text on curriculum, methods and evaluation. Silver Spring, MD: T.J. Publishers.
Rosenthal, J. (1978). Idiom recognition for machine translation and information storage and retrieval. Georgetown University.

Santiago, R. & Barrick, L. (2007). Handling and incorporation of idioms in interpretation. In Metzger, M. and E. Fleetwood (eds) Translation, sociolinguistic, and consumer issues in interpreting. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Santiago, R., Barrick, L., and Jennings, R. (2015). Interpreter views on idiom use in ASL to English interpreting In Cagle, K. and Nicodemus, B. (eds) Symposium selected papers (Volume 1). Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.