Saturday, August 26, 2000

On Writing ASL

You’ll see a lot of ASL in In/Exhale, especially in Season 2. Because ASL is a visual language (with no standard written form), it has to be represented in English in some way. Of course, you can never fully represent ASL in written words, but I try my best to convey this beautiful language as best as I can.

You’ll see me do so in several ways:

1- Descriptions of signs. This happens occasionally when we’re in the POV of a character who doesn’t know ASL, and I’m describing what they’re seeing as they watch the signs. Sometimes, they’ll be able to clearly see individual signs, other times, not so much. I’ll also use this occasionally when I’m in a character’s POV who does know ASL to help the reader appreciate more what the signs look like.

Example: Draw the drapes,” Kai said as he signed, making an outline of curtains in the air with his spread fingers, bringing them out, then down. Next, he held his hands up, flat, palms out, bringing  them together so his thumbs touched.

2- Descriptions of body language/facial expression. ASL is a visual language, and a lot of its grammar and meaning comes from body language and facial expression (these are called Non-manual Signals, or NMS). For example, eyebrow position can tell you if you’re asking an open-ended question, a yes/no question, or the topic of a sentence. Body position can indicate you’re asking a question, you’re saying “and,” and more. Negating a sentence or sign can be as simple as signing while shaking your head. Expressing a modifier (as in, something is “really” or “very”) can be done through facial expressions and the way you sign a particular word.  I’ll do my best to convey this information in the descriptions from time to time (especially when important), but you might also see me use bold to indicate a modifier when writing in English, or an exclamation point after a glossed word to illustrate the same point.

Example: “MAN VERY-TALL, WHEELCHAIR, HAIR YELLOW!, EYES BLUE!” or “I really want to learn,” Renee signed, doing her best to put her emphasis on the ‘want’ to show how much she wanted to learn.

3- English. This is what you’ll see most, especially for longer conversations, because it’s just easier for the reader. I recognize that English is a denser language (in terms of its lexicon) than ASL. I also recognize that some words in English are the same, yet are represented by different signs in ASL depending on meaning/context (like “love” and “like,” for example). However, I’m not going to stress too badly over things like “there is no sign for ___” - because a single sign can have a lot of equivalent meanings in English, and some words are fingerspelled if no sign exists. If I feel like pointing out the differences between English and ASL are important, I will, but keep that in mind. ASL, because it is another language, will always be represented in italics.

Example: I don’t know. Maybe someday,” Kai signed.

I could have easily glossed that, too, but reading a lot of glossing can be cumbersome, especially if you’re not familiar with ASL, so I try to limit when I use that.

4 - Visual descriptions of ASL storytelling. Along these lines, I’ll try to convey the visual nature of ASL as much as possible. Part of what makes writing ASL in English so difficult is a lot of information is portrayed in ASL in a way that you can’t fully convey in English. I’ll do my best to try to make this come through in the text whenever possible, to give you a better sense of what a particular conversation would look like.

Example: Besides, Megan has a thing for strays, so you won’t be the only one there besides us.” He indicated Megan’s affinity for those without families to spend the holiday with by first signing MY HOUSE, then using a classifier for a “person” (the handshape for “D,” index finger standing up) with his left hand, moving it around in front of him in a semicircle, while he used his right hand to “pluck” them in the sign for pick/find toward the space where he’d drawn his house earlier, as if she were literally plucking strays up and putting them in their house.

4- Glossing. It is possible to write ASL--kind of. It’s called “glossing.” You use a capital English word to represent the sign. If the sign encompasses more than one English word, you hyphenate, like DON’T-KNOW or DON’T-WANT or CLOSE-DOOR. In true glossing, you have a line above the words that will indicate NMS.
Example: The English sentence "I don't understand" could be glossed this way:

Where the "N" above means you negate the sentence by shaking your head and frowning.

Because, as I mentioned above, glossing can hurt readability (and still doesn’t fully capture the visual nature of ASL), I don’t want to use it too much. For example, ASL uses a very different word order than English; the topic usually comes first, adjectives usually follow the noun, and question words are at the end, rather than the beginning, of most sentences. Additionally, concepts like “because” are usually framed in rhetorical questions, so the English sentence “I’m going to the store because I needed milk” might be said in ASL like, “STORE I GO WHY? NEED MILK.

Also, in true glossing, you indicate a fingerspelled word with the prefix “fs,” so: “fs-MUTE” would mean that the word was spelled out. I’m going to stick to the more Englishy convention of either saying in the tag that a word or words were fingerspelled, or write them like this: “M-U-T-E” as I think that’s more readily understandable by more readers.

Also, keep in mind that some words are fingerspelled instead of signed for emphasis. I’ll try to make a note of this whenever it happens in the text.

Additionally, I'm not an expert on glossing, and true glossing is impossible to format on the blog. Mostly, I’ll use glossing if I want to be clear what version of a sign a character used (like LEAVE versus ABANDON), or if I want to emphasize the grammatical structure of an ASL sentence as opposed to its English counterpart.

Example: “If I wanted to ask you your name, I’d do it like this: YOU NAME WHAT?”

Hope that makes things a little clearer, and enjoy In/Exhale! :D

Some ASL resources:

Signing Savvy



  1. Thanks for this informative introduction!

  2. I love this story (don't comment nearly enough), and I really appreciate the explanations along the way. I'm super excited for your videos, too!