Monday, January 24, 2005

Signs of the times

Justin Butterfield had an interesting Book of Mormon Stories post at Mormon Wasp, with a discussion of the hand motions associated with that Primary song. Through those hand motions, Primary children are taught to associate “Lamanites” with “American Indians” -- something that limited geography theories dispute.

Reading his post, I was reminded that there is another audience that receives a similar teaching, but in a much more official way: American Deaf. The Church recently completed the translation of the Book of Mormon into American Sign Language (it takes up fifteen videocassettes). Some years ago, the Church established a committee to develop and standardize ASL signs for uniquely or distinctively LDS terms. One of my ASL teachers at BYU, Jack Rose, was on that committee. He explained to us a little bit about the process. For example, the sign for “baptism” in other faiths indicates a sprinkling motion. But since we believe in baptism by immersion, a different standard sign was chosen -- one that indicates the motion of immersion and coming back up out of the water. It expresses the symbolism we teach very nicely, too, since aspects of the sign are easily connected with the idea of death and resurrection.

Other signs that differ from other faiths include signs for priesthood offices, such as deacon, priest, or bishop. And then there are signs that are uniquely LDS, such as the idea of a “stake.” And, of course, there are unique things like Book of Mormon names.

In ASL, while there is a representation of the English alphabet, name signs are more often used to indicate people, rather than spelling out their name. The name sign typically reflects some characteristic of the person. For example, my name sign uses the letter “C” (my first initial) and then mimics the sign for “blond” -- the color of (what’s left of) my hair. This also helps to distinguish individuals who have the same first name, as one person named Christopher would have a different name sign than another person named Christopher.

The official LDS sign for “Nephite” and “Lamanite” use the first initial of the name and then mimic the sign for “Indian”: a feather shape with the hand, formed by making an “Okay” sign with the thumb and forefinger closed and the last three fingers up, reminiscent of feathers. The tip of forefinger and thumb are then placed near the corner of the mouth, then moved up and back to touch near the ear, reflecting the American Indian use of feathered headdresses. This standard ASL sign for “Indian” is modified in the official LDS ASL lexicon by changing the shape of the hand to an “N” shape for “Nephi(te)” and an “L” shape for “Laman(ite).” These signs are used in the ASL translation of the Book of Mormon.

By using these signs, the Church establishes a connection for the Deaf between Nephites and Lamanites and American Indians. If limited geography theories of the Book of Mormon are correct, this connection may be unfortunate, particularly as it comes from a more official source than the hand motions that go along with “Book of Mormon Stories.”


  1. Fascinating. What's the ASL sign for "Son of Perdition"? "Master Mahon?" "Kolob?" 

    Posted by Ronan

  2. Is there any precedent for changing signs (within the church)? It kind of reminds me of those stories of unfortunate translations as the church began to internationalize. Even when the translation is dedent, there are some conotations that are less subtle (e.g., the name of the church in French is "the Church of Jesus Christ of the Saints of the Last Days") 

    Posted by J. Stapley

  3. I can't speak about the church specifically, but generally sign language development is quite natural, much like spoken languages.

    Name signs, however, are particularly problematic, in that they stick very well. I had a deaf companion on my mission who didn't actually encounter sign until his early 20's. At the time, he had long hair and as he learned about the church from the people who were teaching him sign, he decided he should have his hair cut.

    The day before his appointment, however, the group finally decided on what they should call him, and his namesign (from that day to this), is brushing your hair behind your ear (as he was perpetually doing when he had long hair). He hasn't had long hair at any time since then, but his namesign remains. I can't see Nephi[te] or Laman[ite] changing any time soon. 

    Posted by Andrew Hart

  4. Fascinating. What's the ASL sign for "Son of Perdition"? "Master Mahon?" "Kolob?"

    Don't know about ASL (as I'm in the UK and learnt BSL), but there's almost certainly no standard sign for Mahon, that would be spelled every time (which would be extremely rare unless you know someone who can devote an entire talk to the topic!)

    Kolob is probably in the same boat as Mahon, but I suppose less likely to be so. I can't think of any sign for it however.

    Perdition I could see being signed one of two ways. One would be the sign for destroy (perdition is defined in the scriptures as destruction, correct?). The other would be the (quite well known, but I think unofficial) sign for outer darkness which is based on the offical, church-specific signs for the kingdoms of glory.

    In either case, signing "Son of Perdition" straight would be quite nonsensical, unless the phrase had been explained previously. While sign, by it's visual nature, can bring symbolism to life, signed conversations tend to be very literal and efficient and use little metaphor.

    And before you ask, no I don't know how to meaningfully sign "Balm of Gilead"! Just what is that exactly, anyway?!

  5. I'm trying to figure out the sign for Priesthood so I can use it in a song. Thanks.

  6. Is there someplace I can find these "standardized ASL signs for uniquely or distinctively LDS terms"? I'm working on a class project and wanted to prepare a video that would help children learn some of these signs (my children are verbal, but delayed and signing has helped). I'm having trouble finding them on Google searches. (but I did find this!) Maybe I'm just searching wrong!

    (could you possibly send a message to my private email (I'm searching from the classroom, and may not find this once I get home). birdgirl at yahoo dot com