Key Skill 3.1: Use ASL Lexicon (vocabulary) accurately.

An excerpt from Interpretation Skills: English to ASL Second Edition by Marty M. Taylor, PhD.

Key Skill 3.1: Use ASL Lexicon (vocabulary) accurately. Pages 85-90.

Description of the skill. Using ASL lexicon accurately is fundamental to conveying, and ultimately interpreting, the precise meaning and intent of the speaking participant’s utterances, and it requires significant breadth and depth of knowledge of both ASL and English.

Lexical items include words and signs, parts of words and signs, phrases and idioms, and discourses containing specific meaning within the context in which they are used. Every ASL lexical item chosen by the interpreter (e.g., sign, fingerspelled word, non-manual signal, use of space) must be semantically accurate, carrying the same meaning and intention in the ASL target message as that expressed in the English source message.


Lexicon is the entire vocabulary of a language or a specialized field such as law, medicine, or linguistics.
Lexical items are the words or signs, parts of words or signs, phrases and idioms, and discourse that make up that language.
Semantics is the meaning conveyed through language. Meaning can be conveyed through the use of words and signs or parts of words and signs, phrases, sentences and discourse.

Semantics. The meaning or the semantics of lexical items includes the dictionary definition as well as the implied meaning (that is, denotation as well as connotation). In interpreting, it is crucial to understand not only the overt meaning, but also the subtle and underlying meanings of lexical items. These include, for example, hyperbole, sarcasm, irony, and “wink-wink” sorts of communication (e.g., “No one here ever leaves work early on Fridays, wink-wink,” where “wink- wink” means, “We all know that’s not true”). In English, for example, the speaker might say, “I have good news. I won a trip to Hawaii.” Unless this news affects the signing participant in a positive way, the signs GOOD N-E-W-S are not semantically accurate; GOOD N-E-W-S is used only when the “good news” applies to the person receiving the ASL target message. In this case, unless the signer entered the speaker in a sweepstakes, hoping for the speaker to win the trip, then the winning of a trip does not apply to the signer (except for maybe being happy for the winner). On the other hand, if the speaker plans to take the signer on the trip, GOOD N-E-W-S is indeed the correct semantic choice.

The meaning of a word can differ vastly, depending on the context. Consider, for example, the word “home.” The dictionary definition of the word “home” is literally “the place one resides”—meaning the dwelling in which one lives, such as an apartment, house, or cottage. In addition, it can mean the geographic area in which one lives, such as the Sahara Desert, Italy, or New York. Just as there are varying meanings for the word “home” in these English examples, there are also varying meanings in ASL. The sign HOME cannot be used for all of the possible places in which people live: instead, options include A-P-T, HOUSE, COTTAGE or C-O-T-T-A-G-E. When discussing “home” as it relates to where one was born or grew up, “home” takes on a different meaning; in ASL, these concepts may be conveyed by signing BEFORE, ME BORN, or AREA ME GROW-UP.

The same English word can be used in multiple contexts, and retain the same meaning. For example, both “My purse disappeared” and “You disappeared after class” mean that something or someone is suddenly gone. The English word “disappeared” means the same thing whether it refers to an object or a person. In ASL, however, purses and people do not disappear in the same way, and different signs must be used to communicate that difference.

A reference to a purse that “disappeared” can be signed with the palm down, middle finger extended lower than the other fingers, then moving all the fingers into an S-handshape with the quickly produced non-manual signal mum ‘suddenly gone.’ (Note: The sign STEAL should be used only if that is what is meant.)

A reference to a person who “disappeared” can be signed DISAPPEAR (dropped out of sight), in which the index finger of the dominant hand—facing outward and toward the signing participant—is held between the fingers of the non-dominant hand, held palm down. The dominant hand then either moves downward, with the index finger moving to an S-handshape below the non-dominant hand, or the index finger moves directly toward the door through which the person would have left. The non-manual signal accompanying these signs is mum ‘suddenly gone.’

Non-manual signals.
In addition to making appropriate lexical choices, the interpreter’s use of non manual signals must agree with her lexical choices. Many times, the signing of specific lexical items is accompanied by non-manual signals which are grammatical signals. For example, when interpreting a message about someone who is very thin, the interpreter may sign THIN, accompanied by a non-manual signal such as ‘pursed lips’ to provide the additional meaning of “very.” When interpreting a message about someone who lives “a great distance away,” the interpreter may use the ‘eye squint’ non-manual signal with the sign FAR to convey the meaning of “far away.”

English signs. When providing an English to ASL interpretation, it is not accurate to use initialized signs from English coded sign systems such as Signing Exact English (SEE) or Manually Coded English (MCE). In producing an initialized sign, the interpreter incorporates the first letter of the English word used by the speaker. Examples of this include signing “rehearse” like PRACTICE with an R-handshape, rather than using the ASL A-handshape; signing “future” with an F-handshape, rather than using a B-handshape; or signing “weekend” using a W-handshape for WEEK, followed by an E-handshape for END, rather than the ASL sign WEEKEND with one finger signing WEEK followed by a flat handshape, palm in, moving downward at the end of the fingers on the non-dominant hand.

Not all initialized signs are invented signs created for use in SEE or MCE. ASL does have some signs that are initialized. For example, the ASL signs for WATER using a W-handshape, PEOPLE using a P-handshape, and LAW using an L-handshape have been used for generations. It is always best to check with the Deaf community to determine what is common usage locally, regionally, and nationally, and what are uncommon or English influences in ASL.

English affixes such as prefixes and suffixes typically are not used in ASL. Signing English affixes is incorrect in the same way that using English initialized signs is incorrect. For example, it is incorrect to use English word endings such as -ing, -ed, and -ness (as in SEE-ING, WALK-PAST, and DEAF-NESS) in ASL interpretations.

Interpreters need to be fluent in ASL vocabulary in order to interpret from English to ASL, conveying complete thoughts and drawing upon the variety of discourses they encounter. It is imperative to use lexicon that includes the most standard, most common, and most clear semantic choices. In a variety of settings—such as religious services, public events, and classrooms—interpreters often interpret for several signers at one time, and using common lexicon is vital to producing an interpretation that can be most easily understood by the largest number of deaf people involved in the communication event. (See Key Skill 7.2: Interpret the English source message completely into the ASL target language, including cultural and regional differences.)

Possible Errors
3.1a Uses incorrect signs to convey meaning (e.g., signs USE to convey the meaning of “I am used to participating in debates,” rather than signing HABIT to convey the accurate meaning).

3.1b Uses incorrect non-manual signals (e.g., incorrectly uses a co-occurring th ‘careless’ non- manual signal with DRIVE, rather than correctly conveying the intended meaning of “careful driving”).

3.1c Uses initialized signs (e.g., signs TABLE with the English sign using a T-handshape, rather than the ASL sign using a flat handshape).

3.1d Uses English prefixes or suffixes (e.g., incorrectly incorporates the English language suffix – NESS, signing DEAF-NESS, rather than correctly using only the sign DEAF, or fingerspelling D-E-A-F-N-E-S-S, if the actual English word is needed).

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