Paradise Lost: How ASL as a concrete language is shortchanging the D/deaf.

Despite the scathing title above, this is not ammunition for the Oralist nor the Signing Exactly English (SEE) user, nor an excuse for American Sign Language (ASL) purist to burn an effigy of yours truly, but a serious discourse on whether ASL, as a concrete language, has been shortchanging a certain segment of our population of our nation known as the D/deaf people.

This post focuses on two main concepts: the abstract and concrete nouns. I won’t get into detail or the theoretical discussion behind this subject (if interested, go to I will also skip explaining the studies on cognitive rehabilitation and relative size of frontal lobes between concrete and abstract thinkers. However, what I will do is give you a high-level understanding of the difference between the Abstract and Concrete nouns by utilizing an apple as an example. One can easily picture an apple. It’s concrete and singular. Now, to take it one step further away from concrete: “fruit”. That’s a less concrete category of apple. Push “fruit” even further into the realm of abstraction nouns and we now have the concept of “food,” and after that, “nourishment.”  Apple – Fruit – Food – Nourishment. It is apparent that the concept of a concrete noun of apple can become more and more abstracted easily.  One can easily see the difference between Apple vs. Nourishment vis a vis the Concrete noun vs. the Abstraction noun, respectively.

Now, in the realm of memory, a concrete noun, singular experience is considered the most permanent type of memory we have, the best kind and the easily understood. It can be fairly easy for a 1-2 years old kid to grasp a concrete concept such as apple versus abstract one, nourishment. Concrete memory is considered the best form of memory exercise for folks with brain injury in the realm of recalls and remembering. Abstraction, on the other hand, is the weaker form of memory; however its strength lies in the capacity of “transitioning” many different concepts quickly from one place to another. For example if one was capable of writing in abstract English, one should be able to transition this easily to the abstract spoken or signed English language, such as understanding that apple is a type of food, and vice versa. Its benefit is in its mobility and ease of transition where a concept needs to be applied. Unfortunately, with something concrete, this benefit is lost, for if one was to take an English writing course in pure concrete terms, one would still have to take a separate class in concrete signing and verbal English, since no true transition is capable of taking place, an apple is not identical to food, nor is food an apple.

That being said, albeit a very simplified comparison of Abstraction and Concrete nouns, it has brought me to the subject this discourse is based upon: ASL and its iron-grip in the world of “Concrete nouns”.  ASL by itself is an excellent medium for delivering concrete information; however it is woefully stunted for abstraction.  One solution that ASL users utilize to compensate for the short-coming of ASL is by relying on the powers of concrete to explain abstract, known as “substitution”.  In the sense of substitution, we attempt to substitute an abstract concept by using a concrete representative.  For example, we have the same sign for “Food” and “Nourishment”, since ASL is a concrete language. There would be absolutely no way to distinguish the difference between those two words without either lip reading, or having the signer spell out the letters individually, without understanding that this particular word is being used as a substitution. Many concrete thinkers have used this method with varied success, assuming they recall precisely what abstract was being represented by the concrete substitution, and of course the context that it’s being used in. This creates a double work for concrete thinkers. It creates a baggage known as “a mile wide and an inch deep”, meaning that you can apply as many concrete substitution, but it has its limitation and cannot go beyond the first two substitution, you cannot develop a different sign the further down you go the Apple-Fruit-Food-Nourishment ladder, observe that Apple and Fruit has its own sign, whereas Food and Nourishment are shared, the further you go down the abstract ladder, the more the signs are indistinguishable from each other.

ASL users often take pride that their language “cannot” be written (although current scholars are attempting to decipher and fully transition ASL to the written language today, a daunting task of transitioning a concrete noun from one form to another without losing its meaning, or superimposing an external entity as a representative). It also explains why there is an extremely small pool of D/deaf folks in the realm of high-learning field that require heavy abstract thinking, such as theoretical science and philosophy. I’m not saying that can’t be done, but ASL in itself acts more of an obstacle in the higher-level learning than a lubrication would ease the mighty cogs of our academic learning.  How many D/deaf folks do you know that actually has a job or academic training in any one of those related field? I could count them all on both of my hands, including myself.  Now, how many D/deaf people do you know that has a position or academic background in the blue collar and Deaf-related world? Now, those neither two hands, nor feet of mine suffice as a counting medium. I sometimes wonder, with all the capable D/deaf folks out there, whether ASL has served as “enslavement” to the Concrete world, rather than freeing them to enjoy the richness that our Abstract world has to offer.

Now, it wouldn’t be fair to end this prose with a depressing note without pre-offering a solution that doesn’t rob us of the powerful concrete language, yet allow us to enjoy the wonderful world of abstractness. Pidgin. It’s the only form, which I know of, that immerses concrete ASL and abstract English fluently back and forth for both of the worlds, complementing each others strengths and weakness. Even if one used a concrete substitution for a word, Pidgin allows us to enunciate, sound-less, any word on the lips with the sign as assistance. Imagine signing the word for Nourishment and Food, they’re virtually indistinguishable, however if one used lip-movement saying “nourishment”, one would be able to pick up the difference between nourishment and food. This is merely just a superficial example, but albeit a powerful one.

The world can become more accepting for the D/deaf people by taking in the concrete strength provided by ASL, with the abstract fluidness that only abstraction capable English could provide. The conclusion is not necessarily that we need to push an ASL or English only solution, but to allow them to co-exist to enable our D/deaf people the opportunity of advancing in field that otherwise would’ve been extremely difficult to achieve without the unnecessary impediment.

– William Harkness 9/9/9




2. Higbee, Kenneth. Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve it. ISBN-10: 1569246297


Special Thanks to:

1. Oroboros for his editing and critique of this paper

2. Firkinator for her feedback.

Published by

William Harkness

Hyperboreans & HMoC founder. Futurist by nature, engineer by trade. Apple zealot & Obama critic.

5 thoughts on “Paradise Lost: How ASL as a concrete language is shortchanging the D/deaf.”

  1. Hello,

    Interesting! However, this posting does not address some basic English-centric assumptions. English speakers are *word-obsessed* and are driven to find “just the right word”. (Perhaps this is why English has recently passed the million-word count. The next most word-obsessed language is Mandarin, with about 350,000 words. The rest of the world’s languages get along with 150,000 to 250,000 words.)

    Languages with smaller vocabularies than English commonly express abstract concepts and talk about more detailed groupings than the language has specific words to express. They use several strategies, such as short capsule description phrases or using an example or two to represent a specific group. ASL uses some of these strategies as well.

    *All* the world’s languages can express *all* human thought. It is a common fallacy that language limits thought. While this might be true for some people, the ones who allow language to limit their thought are not ever going to have an original thought regardless of the expressive richness of the language they use. On the other hand, people that think through things in original ways will do so regardless of whether their language has *a* specific word for their thoughts. When these original thinkers want to express their thoughts, they will bend their language to serve their needs. If they are not English-speakers, they will express their thoughts without feeling a compulsion to invent new words to capture specific ideas.

    Basically, this posting treats an English-speaker’s peculiarity as if it were a universal necessity.


  2. There is an ideology conflict here, between your comment and Jalamdhara’s, and it is a clash between liberal humanism and postmodern critical theory.

    The general values and attitudes of liberal humanism are not usually formulated or stated, but they are all too real, and quite simultaneously both pervasive and invisible. It is only with a conscious effort of will they can be brought to the surface. The following lists is a collection of the elements that constitute this “distilled essence” of the corpus of attitude and assumptions and ideas, the half-hidden curriculum of values and beliefs in modern English societies.

    1. The attitude to philosophy or literature itself, where good philosophy or literature has timeless significance, for they transcend the limits and peculiarities of the age they were written in, and speaks to the constant in human nature. Such writings is, like Ben Johnson said about Shakespeare, “not for an age, but for all time.” The world is a collection of objective and observable facts that registers on the passive subject.

    2. The logical consequence of the previous point is that the text or argument contains its own meaning within itself. We don’t need any elaborate process of placing it within a context, whether it is sociopolitical (the context of a particular background or political situation) or literary-historical (the work is a product of the influence of other thinkers or writers or shaped by conventions of the genre) or autobiographical (the personal details of the author’s life and thought). Most scholars would admit these contexts are valuable, but some critics demand the primacy and the self-sufficiency of the argument/text commits them to the process of “close reading.” This isolates the text from all other contexts and assumes it independent for explication purposes.

    3. To understand the text, it must be independent from the contexts and analyzed in isolation. The close verbal analysis of the text is done without prior ideological assumptions or political preconditions or any other expectations. Arnold claimed the sole business of criticism was to see “the object as in itself it really is.”

    4. Human nature is permanent, where the same passions, emotions and situations recur similarly over and over. Hence, continuity in philosophy and literature are more important than innovation. This allows critics like Samuel Johnson free reign to castigate Tristram Shandy for being original, and positivists like Carnap carte blanche to denigrate Heidegger’s neologisms.

    5. Each person’s individuality is a unique essence that transcends our environmental influences and although individuality may change and develop, it cannot be transformed. This accounts for the unease with certain situations, such as those in Dickens, where a “change of heart” in a character takes place, and the entire personality shifts to a new dimension due to changes in circumstances. This implies the malleability in the essence of character that contradicts the assumption of liberal humanist. The transcendental subject is the individual that is antecedent or transcends the force of society, experience, and language.

    6. The sake of philosophy and literature is the explication and enhancement of life and the advocacy of human values, but not in a programmatic way. If philosophy and literature became political they shrink to ham-handed propaganda.

    7. The fusion of form and content in literature must be organic, where one inevitably grows from the other. Form should not be a decoration that applies externally to a complete structure. A poetic form or imagery that can be detached from the substance of the work, instead of being integrated, is superficial and fanciful, and not truly ‘imaginative.’ once form is a preferred mode of presentation, it presumes some languages are better than others to represent truth. This relies on a certain way of distinguishing between form and content where form is adequate to content, as long the appropriate linguistic or semiotic device is used.

    8. The organic form is sincerity, the truth-to-experience or honesty towards the self or capacity for human empathy and compassion is a quality that lies within the work of literature. It cannot be a fact or intention behind the work. Instead, sincerity is to be discovered within the text where cliché or over-inflated forms of expression are avoided, and the first hand individual description expressed as feelings where the emotion emerges implicitly from the presentation of an event. Once the language achieve these qualities then the truly sincere thinker can transcend the distance between the language and the material and make the language seem to ‘enact’ what it depicts, and abolish the distance between the words and things.

    9. The value of literature is its silent showing and demonstrating something instead of its explanation or saying of that something. Ideas in literature are worthless unless they are embodied as ‘enactment.’ The explicit comment and formulation in literary history denigrate ideas and betrays an anti-intellectual sentiment.

    10. The job of critic is to interpret the text and mediate between it and the reader. The theoretical account of the nature of reading is useless in criticism, and if it is worked out, it will only burden critics with ‘preconceived ideas’ that will get between them and the text. This is the pervasive distrust of ideas within liberal humanism, where the notion all ideas are ‘preconceived’ that they will get in the way between the reader and the text. This is a byproduct of British empiricism that goes back to Locke where he argued that ideas are formed when direct sense impressions from the world are imprinted on the mind. The mind assembles these in the process of thinking. Locke rejected introspective speculation as a source of valid knowledge and claimed that direct experience and evidence of things were primary.

    This list is a series of propositions that conservative humanist readers or critics hold if they made their assumptions explicit.

    As for Postmodern theory of criticism, the following ideas have their own distinct traditions and histories, but some recurring themes form a common ground that makes it easy to speak of theory as a single entity with a set of underlying beliefs, as long we realize that this is an oversimplification.

    1. The notions we consider as basic givens of existence (gender identity, individual selfhood, the notion of philosophy and literature) are fluid and unstable things, not fixed and reliable essences. They are ‘socially constructed,’ dependent on social and political forces and on shifting ways of seeing and thinking, rather than being securely there in the real world of fact and experience. These “basic givens” are contingent categories for they are temporary, provisional and circumstance-dependent, rather than absolute ones. Therefore, no overarching fixed truths can ever be established, which means all forms of intellectual inquiry are always provisional.

    2. All thinking and investigation is necessarily affected and largely determined by prior ideological commitment. The notion of disinterested inquiry is untenable for none of us is capable of standing back from the scales and weighing things up dispassionately, for each one of us have a thumb on one side of the scales. Each practical procedure already presupposes a theoretical perspective. The denial of this only places our theoretical position beyond scrutiny as something that is ‘common sense’ or ‘simply given.’ this contention is problematical and is made explicit as a counter to opponents’ arguments.

    3. Language conditions and limits and predetermines what we see. Hence all reality is constructed through language so nothing is truly ‘there’ unproblematically, for all is a linguistic or textual construct. Language does not record reality, but shape and create it so that the entire universe is textual. Meaning is a joint meeting between the reader and the writer – not just there awaiting before the text is read, but it requires the reader to bring it into being.

    5. Totalizing notions are not reliable, for the notion of ‘great works’ as an absolute and self-sustaining category is to be suspected, for books always emerge out of a particular socio-political situation. This situation shouldn’t be suppressed, which is what happens when they are promoted to greatness. Just like the concept of human nature as a generalized norm that goes beyond the idea of a particular race, gender or class is suspect, because it is an Eurocentric practice, based on European norms, and Androcentric, based on masculine norms and attitudes. The appeal to a generalized and inclusive human nature only marginalize or denigrate or even deny the humanity of disadvantaged groups.

    politics is pervasive
    language is constitutive
    truth is provisional
    meaning is contingent
    human nature is a myth

  3. Comment by admin:

    Clearly you do not know me beyond my comment. That means you do not have the information to label my thinking or reasoning.

    However that may be, you also miss the point of my comment. Different languages have different strategies for expression. Jalamdhara’s posting repeats a long-debunked idea that ASL is a “concrete” language deficient in abstract expression. This is simply not true. ASL uses communication strategies different from English, but similar to many other languages. Jalamdhara *seems* to be saying that the communication strategies that English uses are *superior* to other languages. This sounds a lot like saying that English-users are *better* than other people. (Isn’t this against some of the Postmodernist principles you just posted?)

    My point is that Jalamdhara’s posting assumes an English-centric view. I am saying that the “superiority” of the English language has not been proven. “This posting treats an English-speaker’s peculiarity as if it were a universal necessity.”


  4. If different languages have different strategies, then it follows that some are better than others at certain strategies. You can\’t argue \”different languages have different strategies\” and then at the same time, posit the claim that \”all languages can express all thought.\” I agree that different languages do have different strategies, but the contradiction is your problem.

    After all, some ASL fundamentalists do push the concreteness of ASL due to its iconicity (three dimensional spatiality), as opposed to the modality of english (sounds/speech).

  5. The contradiction is *not* self-evident, nor inherent. That must be proven.

    And, keeping to the point of my original comment, the posting assumes an unproven superiority of English for expressing abstract thought. Many people have said many things about ASL. Only some of them are true. The most recent reading I have done about the linguistics of ASL debunks the “concreteness” and “iconicity” of signed languages generally, including (obviously) ASL.


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