A leading linguist and editor of the New Zealand Sign Language Dictionary says people shouldn’t overreact to signs that might be seen as offensive. NZSL is a language like any other, she says, and people shouldn’t make value judgments about the communities that speak it.

Rachel McKee, an associate professor at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, was responding to social media reports saying the words for Jew, Chinese, Gay and Samoan in NZSL are inappropriate.

Juliet Moses, a spokesperson for the Jewish Council of New Zealand, said that the organisation was “concerned to discover last week the use of an offensive stereotype to sign ‘Jew’”.

Deaf Aotearoa did not respond to a request for comment.

Dictionaries are records of languages

At issue is the stereotypical depictions of a handful of minority groups. According to the NZSL Dictionary, one of the ways to sign Jew is to make a hook-nosed gesture. One of the words for Chinese involves tugging at the corner of your eye. Gay is represented by a hand flip and Samoan by pressing down on your nose.

But McKee says that the dictionary is a record of NZSL, not the arbiter of it. “The job of a dictionary is to record, document and describe the language as people use it, not to prescribe it,” she said.

“A good dictionary documents language usage, it doesn’t attempt to be the arbiter of the correct and only way to say things.”

McKee pointed out that the hook-nosed sign for Jew is marked as being an “older variation” on the dictionary website and a newer one evokes a beard instead. Chinese, Gay and Samoan also have alternative signs in the dictionary.

She drew a comparison to how English has evolved in other respects. The word Negro is no longer used to describe black people in the United States, “but it is a term that you would still find in the dictionary,” she explained.

Changing the language

Moses said that the offensive signs could be done away with. “Societies and languages evolve. In recognition of that, UK sign language has abandoned the use of these derogatory stereotypes. We understand that NZ Sign Language has indicated it is open to doing this as well, and we would encourage it to do so,” she said.

In response, McKee says that there is no one body that decides what is or isn’t NZSL, just like there is no authority that decides what is or isn’t English. “The arbiter of a language are the people who use the language,” she said.

But, she conceded, NZSL is always evolving.

“Usage, like in all languages, changes over time as people are in contact with other groups of people that they haven’t been in contact with before, or they see new things or they reconsider the impact on people.”

“That’s very much the case with sign language too.”

As understandings change, NZSL could change too. “Like all languages, people within the language community at different points have different understandings of the impacts of particular words or signs and they will maybe adopt or change to new usages,” she said.

Brian Coffey, the director of the Office for Disability Issues at the Ministry of Social Development, agreed that NZSL is constantly changing. “As a language, the vocabulary used is constantly changing.  The influence of travel and connections made online are evident in changing some historical signs used in the community,” he said.

“For example, signs used to name a country are being changed to reflect the countries’ own sign.”

Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero said, “It is important that sign language, like all languages, evolve and take account of changes in our communities and in societal attitudes.”

Differing connotations

McKee also stressed that these terms do not necessarily have a negative connotation within the deaf community.

“Sometimes connotations that people outside a sign language community might attach to a sign are not the connotations that go with that sign within that language community,” she said.

“There’s always sensibilities about words within the group and usage external to the group. Those two things don’t always match up, as in most languages.”

McKee looks to the sign for Chinese as an example. While non-NZSL-speaking observers may see the eye-tugging gesture as offensive, the alternative is actually what deaf people within China find inappropriate. It draws lines across the chest, like a Mao-style suit, McKee said.

“In actual fact, deaf people within China themselves don’t like that sign because of the association with the Cultural Revolution and Mao and so on.”

Murky origins

It’s hard to tell where exactly some of these signs came from. “I guess the issue is that many signs – but not all signs – evolve from the ways in which deaf people perceive things and describe things, using visual and gestural modality,” McKee said.

“You’re going to get ways of describing that will identify what looks salient to these people. Signs are also passed on historically. For example, the sign that’s sparked this inquiry, Jew, is a very old sign from British sign language that’s been around for centuries.”

But, for the vast majority of NZSL speakers, using any method to sign Jew isn’t done pejoratively. McKee compares it to how the word Jew can be said as a slur or as a simple descriptor of someone’s religious or ethnic background. In other cases, someone may be using it as a descriptor but have it interpreted as a slur.

What McKee most wants to stress is that NZSL is a language like any other. That means it’s an imperfect tool for communicating, constantly changing and not necessarily a perfect reflection of the people who use it today.

“People just need to be careful before they jump in and judge another language and what that language means to the people who use it.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

Leave a comment