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Respecting Language: Sign Language Interpreters as Linguistic Descriptivists

Respecting Language: Sign Language Interpreters as Linguistic Descriptivists

Sign language interpreters are exposed to language variation on a daily basis. Interpreters and programs supporting interpreter education must cooperate with the Deaf community to adopt and adapt to the evolving stylings of native signers.


How We Look at Language

There are two widespread approaches to variation within languages: prescriptivism and descriptivism1. Prescriptivists approach language with a predetermined notion of what rules ought to govern a language. Often these rules are taken from some supposedly pure or superior form of language. Prescriptivists have looked at English, for instance, and insisted on the use of “whom” in object position rather than “who,” on distinguishing between uses of “fewer” and “less,” and on using “from,” and not “than,” as the preposition that accompanies the adjective, “different.”

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Descriptivists, on the other hand, approach language variation as it occurs in actual discourse. Instead of seeking to impose rules on language use based on some predetermined agenda or formula, descriptivists simply observe without judgment how the language is used by native speakers. Rather than assuming that one dialect is superior to another, descriptivists note that all varieties of language operate based on a number of equally valid, complex rules.

Linguists generally approach linguistic variation as descriptivists. These scientists insist that there is no objective reason to regard one set of rules as superior to another. For instance, dialects of English that use the past participle “have saw” are not objectively inferior to dialects that use “have seen.” Many textbooks teach the form “have seen” for socio-political reasons. That is, the people who have power and wealth impose their language variety on others by publishing grammar books that espouse the rules of their variety and by discriminating against speakers whose dialects do not conform. As a result, people assume that one dialect is “correct” or more rule-governed than the dialects of less powerful groups who do not have the means to publish grammar books and represent their own dialects in media and other institutions of power. In this way, the language of the establishment becomes a norm that oppresses and suppresses legitimate dialect variation.

Interpreters as Linguists

Sign language interpreters should act as linguistic descriptivists. That is, interpreters should look at language as it is used by native signers in the Deaf community and attempt to emulate that language in their target language production. Unfortunately, there is a trend toward linguistic prescriptivism in interpreter education and in the sign language interpreting community. These prescriptivists focus on some notion of ASL “purity” and how they assume ASL should be signed. While, on the face of it, it seems that such a motivation would be praiseworthy, in reality this approach frames the Deaf community’s language as an object of judgment with the interpreter serving as judge. Prescriptivists lament the supposedly poor and degraded quality of ASL usage today and too often situate themselves as “better” signers than the Deaf clients they serve.

Complicating Factors

Three caveats are in order. First, I am not asserting that everything every Deaf person signs is consistent with ASL grammatical norms. For instance, there are many non-native Deaf signers who use ASL but who did not internalize its grammatical rules growing up. As a result, they cannot be said to adequately represent legitimate dialect varieties of ASL. Though their language use should be respected, they are not ideal linguistic models of native ASL use. Secondly, everyone has bits of language that are idiosyncratic and not representative of linguistic norms. Thus, simply because one native signer uses a particular expression, that expression should not be considered de facto normative and applied widely by sign language interpreters. Thirdly, sign language interpreters who work in educational settings must consider the unique situation of Deaf students whose language is still developing.  Educational interpreters should not limit their usage to that which is common in the particular mainstream setting in which they work. Instead, they should consider the wider Deaf community’s usage when choosing signs and grammatical options. Just as a hearing teacher introduces English structures and vocabulary that are more advanced than those commonly used by hearing students, so should an interpreter include ASL structures that are representative of Deaf adult populations.

Prescriptivism in Our Work

The native signing community serves as the normative standard for the language, and non-native interpreters should not impose our own judgments on the signs and syntactic structures used in the community. To do so is to impose a prescriptivism that is inappropriate to one’s role as a sign language interpreter. I see this prescriptivism in several areas:

  1. Formulaic Syntax. Many interpreters, in their zeal to learn and preserve ASL, often develop an unnuanced, formulaic idea of what ASL is. As a result, they apply overly simplistic “rules” about what constitutes “pure” ASL. For instance, such interpreters expect all ASL sentences to use topicalization or right-movement of wh-questions (wh- question words at the ends of sentences). Such an approach reveals an incomplete understanding of the wide range of syntactic variation available in ASL.
  2. Reluctance Toward English Borrowings. Sign language interpreters often frown on Deaf people’s use of English-derived syntax, signs, and expressions in their discourse. In reality, however, languages that exist side-by-side for many years—as English and ASL have—often experience linguistic borrowing. In particular, the less powerful language tends to frequently borrow from the more powerful language group2.  Thus, ASL’s use of English structures and expressions is not an aberration, but rather an indication that ASL is a normal language.
  3. Preference for Contrastive Structures. Related to the above two tendencies is the trend for interpreters to always search for linguistic forms that are as different from English as possible. This tendency results in the refusal to use a word order that happens to be similar to English word order even if that is the syntax preferred by the community in certain instances.
  4. Insistence on “Conceptual” Accuracy. Signs are not concepts. Signs are lexical items that can represent a wide range of ideas. Just as the English word “bear” can convey several senses, so too can signs convey a wide range of meanings. Rather than attempting to use signs that are “conceptually” accurate, we should ask ourselves which signs are used to convey a particular idea in the Deaf community and use those signs to convey that idea.  For instance, in the Deaf community in which I work, the sign BREAK is often used to indicate the idea of violating a law or rule. Though the sign BREAK did not traditionally extend to the concept of illicit behavior, the community now uses the term in that way and thus the term should be accepted by sign language interpreters in that community.
  5. Avoidance of Initialization. The Deaf community itself is grappling with the long history of linguistic oppression that has affected its language. In an effort to counteract these effects, some signers prefer to avoid all initializations. While it is certainly outside of my role to tell native users how to use their own language, I maintain that the interpreter ought to look to members of the Deaf community she works with as the norm for her own language use. That is, if an initialized sign is accepted in the community, it is not the interpreter’s place to purge that sign from the community’s language. Of course, if a consumer prefers non-initialized signs, then the interpreter ought to use those signs. In the end, the decision for what signs should and should not be used must rest with the Deaf community.

Descriptivism as a Route to Language Respect

Interpreters and interpreter education must remain rooted in the Deaf community. The ideas addressed by Eileen Forestal and Sherry Shaw in their CIT presentation, ”Breaking the Mold of Tokenism”, would aid in the formation of a respectful interpreter mindset regarding the ownership of ASL. The language we use is not an arbitrary entity to be preserved for ourselves according to the rules we prefer. Rather, ASL is a living language belonging to the community we serve. So I invite you to approach each linguistic encounter as an opportunity to observe and to learn from what you see. When we adopt descriptivism as our approach to language, we avoid the burdensome negativity of the judge and can live in the open, engaging world of the eternal language learner.

Questions to Consider

  1. How can interpreter education programs encourage descriptivist attitudes among student interpreters?
  2. Can you recall an instance in which you have expressed a prescriptivist attitude? What may have motivated that behavior?
  3. How can sign language interpreters who wish to emulate the language used in their community distinguish between idiosyncratic novelties and instances of genuine, widespread linguistic variation?
  4. How is linguistic descriptivism especially important for educational interpreters in mainstream settings?


Related Posts:

A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting by Trudy Suggs

Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals? by MJ Bienvenu

The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter by Stacey Webb



For excellent analyses of prescriptive and descriptive approaches to language, see  Joan C. Beal, Carmela Nocera, Massimo Sturiale eds. Perspectives on Prescriptivism. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.  

2 See Hock, Hans Henrich, and Brian D. Joseph. “Lexical Borrowing.” Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics. 2nd ed. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2009. 241–278.