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  • Ernest Richards

Is Sign Language Able to Communicate Everything We Can Say in English?

A big part of our mission vision is to bring into ASL sound theological materials that are so readily available to the hearing.

A question I've been asked several times is, "Is ASL really versatile enough and precise enough to express the abstract concepts of spiritual truth? Doesn't sign language necessarily have a much, much smaller vocabulary to work with?"

This is a question of immense importance! If ASL can't adequately communicate the same spiritual truths as English, we should stop concentrating our energies on learning ASL, and channel them into teaching the Deaf greater reading skills in English, instead!

Part of the question is answered very well by Don Grushkin, below. Quoted from Quora Digest.

Don Grushkin Professor of Deaf Studies (Ph.D. in Language, Reading and Culture), Born Deaf

How many words are there in English? You don’t really know, do you? Same goes with ASL.

Oralists like to try to demean ASL (and signed languages in general) by suggesting that the vocabulary base of ASL is much smaller than English’s. But I don’t think this is necessarily true.

How do you define what a word is, especially when Signed? We might have relatively fewer base signs, but many signs change meaning when modified by facial expression and how the signs themselves are made. So doesn’t this count as “extra words”?

And then there are classifier constructions, which are nearly infinite. Supalla and Clark demonstrated how certain classifier constructions have become lexicalized into formal ASL words. So who’s to say that classifier constructions in of themselves are not ASL words themselves, per se?

And of course there is lexicalized fingerspelling, wherein fingerspelled words (based on English) become signs in of themselves.

So all in all, I would wager that ASL and other Signed languages can have a vocabulary base that is at least equal to that of English and other spoken languages.

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