ASL Poetic Devices
August 13, 2019
Today, I will give an overview on American Sign Language poetry. This discussion is geared for a broad audience, including people who don’t know sign language, ASL students, parents, teachers, the deaf community, and the would-be poets. I will begin by discussing why this is important. English-speaking children at the playground also play with language. For example, they may come up with the phrase “Fatty Patty” and say it repeatedly. Children enjoy saying that phrase for different reasons. One is that it degrades a particular body type. We will not go into that today. You should have that conversation with yourself throughout your life regarding attitudes toward specific groups of people. Another reason that children may enjoy the phrase is the rhyme. As time passes, the rhyme becomes more sophisticated, moving out to line endings. This happens because people enjoy the experience of finding rhymes. Some people go further by adding meter. There are people familiar with English but not so with meter. As they read a poem, their level of appreciation is not the same as those who have received training in meter. Based on my experience growing up, deaf children do play with language; sign language, that is. I am going to sign an example of playing with the handshape “V/2.” [watch above] Over time, more sophisticated structures appear like the ABC story. If you don’t know the handshape of the alphabet in ASL, you will not appreciate the ABC story as much as those who are fluent and can identify the underlying structure. There are other structures like the number story and the handshape story. From there, what are the more elaborate devices? One of my big goals is to come up with poetic devices as to elevate ASL. I have come up with some devices that I will share today. The first device is multiple meanings. For example, this sign is commonly known to mean “NEXT WEEK.” But if you set up context such that one hand represents a person and the other a wall, signing that would translate into “a person walking around the wall.” In that case, the sign means these two things at the same time. I will show you an excerpt of a poem that incorporates this sign. You can see that the sign means the two things at the same time. But it’s important to understand that, without context, this sign has only one meaning: “NEXT WEEK.” Right after this event in the poem, there is another sign with multiple meanings in relation to time and barriers. Let’s see if you can figure it out. This sign, in relation to time, means “NEXT MONTH.” This sign also means, in relation to barriers, a person facing a wall that was just put there. How can the person get through? Ah, more multiple meanings. This sign, in relation to time, means “NEXT YEAR.” This sign also means, in relation to barriers, a cannon propelling a person over the wall. The previous three signs all have multiple meanings in two categories: time and barriers. Now let’s move on to the exercise. For this exercise, I want you to come up with multiple meanings. I will give you more examples that appear in my poems. This sign means “I LOVE YOU,” but I can add context such that the sign resembles a windblown airplane. Let’s see that in action. How scary must it be to ride in a plane caught in a storm. The person is equally scared of loving you. Here are the next multiple meanings: This sign, in relation to love, means “LOVE.” This sign also means, in relation to transportation, when the arms are crossed in an impending car crash. Again, I emphasize that you must set up context for multiple meanings to arise. Here are the last multiple meanings: This sign means, in relation to love, “FALL IN LOVE.” This sign also means, in relation to transportation, to fall while walking. The previous three signs all have multiple meanings in two categories: love and transportation. Notice that the signs in both categories have the same five parameters: handshape, movement, location, palm orientation, and nonmanual signals, abbreviated as NMS. You can play with these five parameters. The next device focuses on handshape. The second device focuses on combining handshapes. For example, the handshapes of the three pronouns “MYSELF,” “ME,” and “I” combine into “I LOVE YOU.” Watch how I combine these handshapes. Here’s how I turned it into a poem. Did you see how the three signs combined into a new sign? It’s important to know that the order matters when it comes to adding handshapes. Let’s see what happens next. When “MYSELF” was combined with “ME,” the person accidentally shot zemself. If the order was reversed such that “MYSELF” was added to “ME,” the person would probably still be alive. Oh well! On with the exercise. For this exercise, I want you to come up with handshape combinations. I will give you more examples in poems. For starters, the sign “MISTAKE” can combine with the sign “YOU” into the sign “I LOVE YOU.” What a smart person to cover up a mistake by adding you in the picture. Now, love is what xe gets. Hold on. Let’s watch. Oops! The handshape decomposed into the these signs, which may be translated into age-appropriate English as this sentence: “You don’t believe me.” Handshapes have a tremendous potential for play. The next device focuses on nonmanual signals, abbreviated as NMS. In a Gallaudet University homecoming game, the cheerleading involves signing to a rhythm that is established by some percussion instrument. That famous Bison Song is strongly associated with the rhythm of clapping 2 times then 3 times. You can come up with other rhythms. For example, I made up a pattern of shoulder movements that I will show you. For this exercise, I want you to come up with a poem following that rhythm. I will give you another example poem. Rhythm is not limited to shoulder movements. There are also mouth morphemes, which have various uses. Mouth morphemes may be used to establish rhythm. I made up an example. I created a poem with that rhythm repeated four times. For this exercise, I want you to come up with a poem following that rhythm. I will give you another example poem. I created a poem with that rhythm repeated four times. For this exercise, I want you to come up with a poem following that rhythm. I will give you another example poem. Rhythm can come from shoulder movements, mouth morphemes, and more sources worthy of examination. The next device focuses on movement. This device is movement similarity, which connects an abstract idea with a concrete idea. For example, waiting, which is an abstract idea, has a circular movement path that can be likened to a wheel, which is a concrete idea. The person can expand on the concrete idea using visual information that also relate to the abstract idea. Here is an example. The person uses movement similarity to connect the abstract idea of waiting with the concrete idea of driving; hence the parallel: The farther the drive, the longer the wait. Let’s move on to the exercise. For this exercise, I want you to come up with a movement similarity connecting an abstract idea with a concrete idea. Of course, I will give another example poem. The movement similarity is between “BELIEVE,” which is an abstract idea and “COMPRESSION,” which is a concrete idea that involves changing levels of thickness. Compression may completely flatten something. The parallel is such that compression changes actual size that corresponds to the amount of belief. I have showed you some devices. I hope you’re now enthusiastic about creating, discussing, and analyzing poetry. We are always finding new features in ASL. It’s important that we cherish its power of art.