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Sign Language, Language, Sexuality and Innovation

By Vani Viswanathan, with inputs, ideas and encouragement from Ramya Anand

In the series James May: Our Man in Japan, British TV presenter James May shares how Japanese translations into English yield “very, very fetching phrases that are actually much nicer than the words we really use.” One of his examples is a sticker on a hotel wall next to an electric kettle that said “electricity pot”, which, May says, “is a much nicer name for it than kettle.”

I laughed, because I love Japan and jokes to do with language. Also because it’s startlingly simpler than coming up with another word for something that is, after all, an electricity pot.

I was 17 when I learnt that languages, like Chinese and Japanese, could have pictorial scripts that aren’t based on letters,. This baffled me; every language I knew until then – English, Tamil, Hindi – was script-based. I couldn’t fathom the idea of writing with characters. For example, the Chinese character for “house” has components that include the characters of roof, and swine, I believe, because pigs were an inherent part of families. I’d stare at Chinese words and be amazed that people managed to read them quickly, because if it were me, I knew I would be putting together each symbol to know what each word meant, and then string the words together, and then figure out the meaning of the sentence. That doesn’t make for speedy, effective communication.

These thoughts pop up on and off in my head due to Indian Sign Language (ISL) classes that I’ve been a part of. Some of my colleagues at TARSHI and I have learnt the basics of ISL from v-shesh in an attempt to make our work more inclusive and to (begin to) learn to explain the complex components of sexuality in a language other than English. ISL, like Chinese or Japanese scripts, is visual too, and requires the communicators to quickly interpret signs and expressions, even for complex words that don’t have a single sign but are a composite of signs. ‘Religion’, for example, is made up of the signs for ‘prayer’ and ‘different types’.

The ISL lessons remind me that English has given us a vocabulary so rich that we tend to forget what it means to express some of its words in other languages. I owe my understanding of so many sexuality concepts to English. We – individuals, activists, academics – come up with new words to explain (existing) concepts or behaviour, simply by adding a prefix or a suffix, or conveniently slapping two words together. Heteronormativity is one of my favourites. A word that needs to be explained using a few sentences, but conveys a nuanced idea in a jiffy. We use ‘consent’ in our conversations and instantly communicate nuances that go beyond the dictionary’s “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something”. We create words to describe sexual identities – pansexual, greysexual, demisexual, and so on. There’s transgender, bigender, cisgender, genderqueer, and nonbinary, all built around a single word, gender. And then there are words like queer, which have been reclaimed.

I’ve previously written about the struggles in finding rights-based terms to describe sexuality-related concepts in Indian languages. If that’s the case with languages that have centuries of established grammar and literature, what can one say of ISL which is only in the initial stages of being standardised across the country?

Despite these struggles, we persisted. We tried, starting with the biggest (in terms of our work) concept of them all: sexuality. In the few years that I’ve engaged with interpretation or observed sign language interpreters at sexuality-related events, I’ve learnt that they may sign the word sex, or end up spelling sexuality. In a recent class, I asked Kanika and Tincy, our ISL teachers, how we could sign sexuality, and they asked, “How do you explain sexuality?” I wondered how I could sign ideas like attraction, pleasure, gender, values, and so on, but tried nevertheless, using my limited vocabulary, apologetic about being reductive.

I started: Who-you-love-who-sex-with-who-you-man-or-woman… and stopped at this point because I couldn’t bring myself to reduce gender to man and woman after several years of explaining gender as going beyond the binary in TARSHI’s trainings.

I could see why our teachers asked us to ‘explain’ a concept in sign. The number of people with hearing impairments in India who learn ISL is still shockingly low, and added to that are complications of sign language borrowing heavily from local contexts: we learnt that marriage in many north Indian contexts is signed using the sindoor (Hindi), whereas in some southern contexts, it is commonly signed using the thaali (Tamil and Malayalam). Like I said earlier, ISL is visual, relying on common symbolism – such as signing hand-to-mouth for eating – to help Deaf people (and others) pick it up easily. Coming up with a large vocabulary is going to make it tougher for people to understand each other, although as the number of ‘speakers’ increase and study or work in different fields, it has to happen. Signs have to be innovated for ‘mergers’, ‘acquisitions’, and, well, ‘sexuality’. ‘Innovated’ signs, however, may take a while to reach and be understood by diverse people, as opposed to the more intuitive signs that already exist.

We gave our teachers a list of sexuality-related words for which we wanted to learn the signs, and they taught us a few – clearly ‘innovations’, if you consider how several other signs were put together to form one big sign. Gay, for example, is man+man+love. Rape was sex+coercion. Bisexual was love+man+woman but we weren’t quite happy with it, and we tried to explain that bisexual referred to a person being sexually attracted to people of their own gender as well as another gender. Our teacher also said there wasn’t a sign for ‘contraception’ just yet, so we could forget ‘safer sex methods’.

And suddenly, leave alone sexuality, ‘gender’ also felt like a sign so difficult to sign (“who+you+inside” seems philosophical; and can it be explained without reference to man or woman?) Of course, there may be an ISL sign for gender that we aren’t aware of, as our teachers said they, too, need to connect with other specialists and the Deaf community to ask about signs they don’t know. And of course, there are other sign languages in the world that may be more ‘advanced’ and have signs for these (there’s this lovely video with signs for queer identities in American Sign Language). Perhaps we borrow ideas from these to innovate for ISL?

And what if we don’t – what does it mean when a word doesn’t ‘exist’ in a language? Like ‘contraception’ in ISL? Or has a simplistic meaning, like ‘domestic violence,’ signed/understood as husband-beat-wife, leaving out the myriad aspects and victims/survivors of such violence? How crucial is it for language to innovate a word for a concept, and what happens to the concept until then? What does it mean to live a concept even if there is no word for it? I know I’m slipping into a rabbit hole here, but what happens to the thoughts that germinate in our minds until we have words to articulate them, even if only to ourselves? I dig deeper: does a thought even exist if we don’t have words for it?

Besides, is the idea of a language not having certain words new? After all, English didn’t have transgender and demisexual and homonegativity until a few years/decades ago – we just made them up as we saw the need for such a word rise in order to talk about it to more people, to press for our rights. Then there’s the whole universe of words in non-English languages for which English doesn’t have satisfactory equivalents. Komorebi. Saudade. Schadenfreude. Nyaka. We get by, explaining them in English, unless we are communicating with people that we think will know the word.

Will ISL go that route too, ‘explaining’ words in sign until they have reached a critical mass of people who could be assumed to know the concept that we now have a sign for it?

As all these questions about innovating signs come up, I wonder whether all of language isn’t innovation anyway! Isn’t it innovation to put cis and gender together to form a composite that conveys that one’s gender identity matches the gender assigned to them at birth? Or when the English ‘pariah’ was derived from the Tamil paraiyar (and a similar Malayalam word), the name of a historically marginalised caste, which lends the English word its meaning?

For now, we are only done with the first set of lessons on ISL basics, so it’s going to be a while before we get anywhere close to communicating concepts related to sexuality. When we get there, though, I do foresee quite a lot of ‘electricity pot’ type signs.

Cover Image: Unsplash

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Article written by:

Vani Viswanathan loves telling stories and is a feminist and managed to make a career bringing both together. She is a development communications professional with experience in storytelling and campaign management for non-profits and corporates. She works with TARSHI and runs an online literary magazine called Spark.

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