An interesting news story (sent to me by Kelly Nestruck—thanks, Kelly!)

Deaf signs ruled offensive
Political correctness has caught up with sign language for deaf people. Gestures used to depict ethnic and religious minorities and homosexuals are being dropped because they are now deemed offensive.
The abandoned signs include “Jewish”, in which a hand mimes a hooked nose; the sign for “gay”, a flick of a limp wrist; and “Chinese”, in which the index fingertips pull the eyes into a slant. Another dropped sign is that for “Indian”, which is a finger pointing to an imaginary spot in the middle of a forehead.
The signs have been declared off-limits by the makers of Vee-TV, Britain’s Channel 4 program for deaf people, for fear of being accused of racism and homophobia. Caroline O’Neill, a researcher at Vee-TV, explained: “We have a sign language monitor on the channel who checks that what we are doing is culturally appropriate.”

The decision sparked controversy:

Critics labelled the move as silly, saying that the producers were interfering with “deaf culture”.
Polly Smith, the acting chairperson of the British Council for Disabled People, said the changes were a form of discrimination.
“The program makers at Channel 4 are interfering with deaf people’s language, culture and view of society, and that is a form of discrimination,” she said.
However, Ms O’Neill defended the move. She said that the program, launching its fourth series today, used modern alternative signs that were not offensive.
“Before, [the sign for Jewish] was connected to a stereotypical Jewish nose, but now it’s a hand sign that mimics the shape of the menorah [a ceremonial candlestick used in Judaism],” she said.
The sign for “Indian” is now a mime of the triangular shape of the subcontinent; “Chinese” is the right hand travelling from the signer’s heart across his chest horizontally, then down towards his hip, mimicking the tunic worn in China; and the sign for “gay” is an upright thumb on one hand in the palm of the other, wobbling from side to side…

Deaf people, presumably, work out their vocabulary without much reference to the decisions of Vee-TV, but I wonder what percentage of the population uses which signs.


  1. Joseph Steelman says

    Usually, I’d think added political correctness is silly and unnecessary. But how many of the non-hearing-impared would usually say, “let’s go and pray with the hooknoses tonight!”, or for dinner, “let’s go eat at the slanty-eyes'”?

  2. Yes, that bothers me too. But of course I can’t put myself in the frame of mind of someone to whom those gestures are the habitual, normal words for the meanings in question. Does the nose-gesture in fact carry any sense of racial contempt to its users, or is it simply another arbitrary sign? The etymologies of many ethnic names are not very savory, if examined closely; but we don’t examine them, do we?

  3. This article is about British Sign Language, which is of course completely different from American Sign Language. ASL went through many similar PC changes at some point (maybe 10-15 years ago? maybe more?) and as far I know they were generally successful. (It’s been many years since I studied ASL and worked at a deaf social services agency, so I am not an expert.)
    The nose gesture probably doesn’t seem offensive until you “stop and think about it”, in the same way that sexist English words or things like the universal “he” didn’t seem weird until you “stopped and thought about it” in the past.
    Anyway I believe the change to more PC forms of ASL words came from within the deaf community, from the people who actually use the language as their native tongue. Although from the article it seems like the same thing has happened in the UK, just perhaps not as successfully.

  4. An upright thumb wobbling from side to side?
    Hmmm!! And what might THAT be referring to?

  5. A wonderful social-studies teacher (polisci, anthropology, history, sociology, current events and a smattering of constitutional law) had her 7th graders for homework think of as many slang terms for different ethnic/racial/other groups as possible. The next day, in clas she split us into small groups to compile a list. Saying the words out loud, in the presence of other kids. Of different ethnic/racial/other categories. Eager young kids cheerfully collaborating, showing off, and suddenly hesitating – would it not be better not to know this word? Or that one?
    Fascinating experience. I expect that British-Indians will be pleased. Gays perhaps less – having re-colonized the word “queer” I doubt they’d balk at a gesture…

  6. What would be the difference between the gestures expressing such “neutral” notions (Jew, Homosexual, Indian, etc.) and the SL equivalent of racial or sexual slurs, if there is any? What is the way, in sign language, to distinguish concretely between, say, the objective “Chinese” and the offensive “Chink”?
    Sorry if the question seems too naive, but I admit my almost complete ingorance of how sign languages concretely work.

  7. I admit my almost complete ingorance.
    IGNorance, ideed.

  8. I am wondering how people from those particular groups refer to their own identities. And could Polari, for example, be spoken in sign language? I have also wondered how SL translates across other languages anyway.
    I’m glad these changes are being made. It’s a liberal wishywashyness, the worst kind of cultural relativism, if prejudice is not challenged across contexts.

  9. Does anyone know why a sign “for ‘Indian’, which is a finger pointing to an imaginary spot in the middle of a forehead” is considered offensive, but a sign for “‘Chinese’ … mimicking the tunic worn in China” isn’t?

  10. That’s the thing—anything you pick out as characteristic of some group, and therefore suitable as a shorthand reference, can be taken as offensive stereotyping.

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