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From Instagram to Johnson High School, American Sign Language keeps up with changes
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Stephanie Nicely has been deaf since she was 5 years old. She was born hearing, but after getting “very, very sick,” she started losing her hearing. Now, she can just barely hear sounds with the help of a hearing aid and can do a little lip reading. - photo by Nick Bowman

The English language is constantly evolving. Stuff that was once “cool” is now “lit,” not to mention the onset of “OK, Boomer.” Sometimes it’s hard enough to keep up with the spoken word — but what about sign language?

“There was a phone you’d slide up,” Stephanie Nicely said through Ruth Dubin, a local American Sign Language interpreter, as she remembered a phone she used to have. “It was a sidekick. Well, before we had those, there was no sign for that. Then, everybody knew what a sidekick was, so that sign was invented. You just slide up and there's your keyboard. But now, nobody has those phones. So that was something that didn't exist, then did exist and now doesn't exist anymore.”

Nicely, 56, has been deaf since she was 5. She was born hearing, but after getting “very, very sick,” with an illness she doesn’t remember the name of, she started losing her hearing. Now, she can just barely hear sounds with the help of a hearing aid and can do a little lip reading.

She’s grown up in an age where things have changed quite a bit. She’s seen the coming of social media and a lot of other technology which has brought on a slew of changes to the language she uses to communicate every day.

“Instagram, for example, that didn't used to be a thing,” Nicely said. “There wasn't a sign for that, but now there is. And of course, with Facebook, there wasn't a sign for Facebook but now there is.”

While many see social media as a nuisance, something people spend too much time on and waste precious hours of the day scrolling though, it’s changed the game for deaf people.

All of these changes to their language can be disseminated through photos and videos online — something that wasn’t easily done before.

“Just like with any language, sign language can change over time,” Brian Leffler, lecturer of sign language at the University of Georgia, said through a video relay service interpreter. “It's not static, it's not archaic. It's very dynamic like any other language and it can change.”

The changes used to be handled and oftentimes decided at conferences. From there, they’d spread throughout the country. Now, much of it’s done through Facebook groups, Twitter accounts and even a deaf news site, The Daily Moth.

“Before all of that, deaf people got together,” Dubin said. “Now, not so much because everybody is connected with their phones.”

Not only has technology changed the way American Sign Language is used, regional differences have come up, too.

Dubin said there’s a specific sign for “cornbread” in the South that those in the North may not recognize. Northerners may simply use the sign for “bread” and not know what a Southerner is signing when they’re signing “cornbread.”

“Some people can say, 'Oh, you're from Alabama' just based on how they sign something,” Dubin said.

There are even accents and dialects in American Sign Language. Whether you live in Athens or Gainesville, within smaller circles, signs become accepted and used even if it’s not known nationwide.

Nicely, a Johnson High School graduate, said when she was at school, she was able to shorten its name.

“I wouldn't sign, J-O-H-N-S-O-N,” Nicely said. “I would sign J-H-S. I learned that. We learn each other's language. So I was like, ‘J-H-S is Johnson, cool.’”

And in Athens, Leffler said there’s a sign for, “Go Dawgs.”

“It's where the index and the pinky are the only fingers sticking up and the thumb is over the two middle fingers,” Leffler said. “So the two outside fingers look like the ears of the dog. So you kind of just use that sign … It's particular to this location. We know that means, ‘Go Dawgs.’ It's tied to this school and not everyone knows that particular sign. So there are definitely dialects that are used in different communities.”

While there’s nothing controversial about saying “Go Dawgs” — depending on who you root for during football season — Dubin said there are some signs that have changed over time because of political correctness. Signs for people of different cultures have not aged well over the years, so American Sign Language has adopted the signs those cultures use instead of coming up with their own.

Something that helps clarify the meaning behind a sign, though, is facial expression. Nicely said it’s just as important as what’s being signed with the hands.

“The sign is also with your face,” Nicely said. “American Sign Language is not just moving your hands. If you move your hands and cover up your face, nobody would understand you.”

It’s part of the whole language.

“It's a visual language,” Dubin said. “It does have grammar, syntax. And it has signs, phrases. It has idioms. It has cultural references, et cetera. But also, it's visual and can't happen otherwise.”

That’s because it is a true language. Leffler said it’s the third most-used foreign language in the United States and is climbing its way closer to second. He said it’s a language with its own culture.

Through its growth, locally and nationally, American Sign Language goes through changes like all other languages. And through those changes, it’s building and strengthening a community. 

“People are starting to recognize it more as a commonly used language,” Leffler said. “It's not just foreign, but it's unique to a community, a deaf community.”