the poetics of asl and NZSL anthem

January 18, 2010 § 4 Comments

First off, a common myth to dispell:

Deaf Poetry- an oxymoron?
The term oxymoron is typically used to mean “a contradiction in terms”. In poetry, an oxymoron occurs when two seemingly opposite words are combined to create a specific tone or effect within the poem. Examples of this would be terms such as: a silent scream, a happy demise, fiery ice, and sweet sorrow. Combining opposites create a more dramatic and heightened tone to a given poetic image.

When we think of the definition of poetry, we think of words put together by sounds. Poetry is often defined by the rhythm, meter, and flow of the words as they are read. This being said, would the term Deaf Poetry be an oxymoron? Unable to hear the flow of words or understand the rhythmic flow of speech, could someone who is completely deaf be able to produce poetry?

Who says signed languages don’t have rhythm, flow or meter? Who says you can’t rhyme in a signed language?

Understandably we might think these terms are restricted to the analysis and poetry of spoken language, but this is  not the case. Phonology – usually defined as the study of a the sound system of a given language – has long been recognised as a valid layer of linguistic analysis of signed languages such as American Sign Language (ASL) or New Zealand Sign Language.

The basic analysis of a segmant or phone in spoken language relies, in the case of consonants, with investigating the place of articulation, manner and voicing.  As any graduate of a phonetics class will be able to tell you, /p/ the first sound in ‘plate’ is a voiceless, bilabial stop.  The three term label is enough to idenitfy this sound as being made by blocking the air at the lips (bilabial) and releasing it (making it a stop) without vibration of the vocal cords.

Deaf phonology has been described as relying on four terms to create a definition of a hand shape:

  • handshape
  • orientation – how the hand is held in space, i.e. flat, palm up etc?
  • place  of articulation
  • movement – repeated, direction, finger wiggle etc

Just as the places of articulation in spoken languages are numerous – bilabial, labiodental, alveolar, palatal, uvular, glottal, so too are there numerous articulators in signed languagesm – the head, the lips, fingers etc.

Location is with reference to the signing space. There is a neutral default signing space in front of the signer – movement …seen as in intrinsic part of the phonology of sign can move that sign out of that space or indicate the movement of the articulators within the neutral space … i.e.,  finger waggling in the neutral space is still classified as movement.

Here are a few examples. The picture below represents a handshap refered to as ASL-1 the digit ‘one’ is one of its meanings,

Moving this hanshape from the neutral signing space up to the signer’s forehead produces the verb THINK.  Leave it in the neutral space but waggle the finger and you have produced WHERE (

If signed languages have ap honology as discussed briefly above, then signed poetry should be able to make use of the same features of phonology exploited by spoken language poetry. 

Some researchers have suggested different types of rhyme in ASL poetry for example, based on repeated handshapes – presumably the same handshape at different locations or undergoing different movements are a type of rhyme – handshape rhyming, movement rhymes – different handshapes undergoing the same movement.

Here is an ASL poet Jon Savage with a few poems in his language … I think it is clear they have different rhythms and meters:
Cynde’s art
lotus t’shirt

For those of you more familiar with New Zealand Sign Language or with the New Zealand National Anthem, the following youtube vid amply demonstrates rhythm!


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§ 4 Responses to the poetics of asl and NZSL anthem

  • masseylinguists says:

    I just noticed something cool about the final signs in the song. Mark seems to use three handshapes for his first version of new zealand. They seem to be NEW Z (i.e.finger spelled letter) LAND. This suggests the pronunciation of English is being rendered here, though most NZE speakers pronounce the letter name zed, not Z). He then follows up with a more ideogram kinds of a sign with both hands held up to make the shape of the country, i.e the two major islands.
    How cool is that?!

  • Doug Strachan says:

    Just wondering if there’s an international sign language. I was shown a few Japanese sign language signs, but I can only remember a couple of them. “Big brother” is an upturned middle finger, which I imagine could lead to a cultural misunderstanding.

  • masseylinguists says:

    Not as far as I know. I have seen presentations where a speaker has been translated into NZSL which was then translated into ASL.
    The NZSL interpreter sat in the front row and signed to the ASL interpreter who stood next to the speaker on the stage. I think this needed to happen for ASL users in the audience. The Signer on stage was boilingual in ASL and NZSL but was not a speaker of English, so the NZSL translator was a hearing/New Zealand English speaker.

  • Jenn- NZSL User says:

    @1. The sign he uses us not ‘new’ it is the sign for ‘N’. In NZSL the sign ‘New Zealand’ is the fingerspelled letters ‘NZ.’ When its more poetic, as in this situation, the iconic sign representing the land with the two hands is used,as well which is neat 🙂

    notice throughout this song that the lip pattern is predominantely that of the Maori or English words. This is often done in the national anthem, even though the lip pattern and the signs are usually completely different. Normally when signing, the lip pattern matches the signs used.

    @2 – no there is no natural international sign language. Sign Languages have evolved in the same way as spoken languages, so are very different from eachother, although there are some similarities, as with spoken language. But for example, NZSL and ASL are completely different. I can’t understand ASL at all.

    You might be interested to know that one of the more ‘interesting’ signs for ‘Auckland’ is the upturned middle finger, to represent the sky tower, and to of course, represent how the person feels about Auckland. (used coloquially not formally.)

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