Signing on, Rachel Locker McKee

A Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language
Graeme Kennedy (ed)
Auckland University Press with Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 1 86940164 6

A national taonga has been quietly hidden from most people’s view until the recent arrival on booksellers’ shelves of A Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language. This scholarly yet entirely usable book is a sign of linguistic nationhood for New Zealand’s “people of the eye”, as an American Deaf leader described the Deaf in 1910, when proclaiming that Deaf people everywhere would never abandon sign language. The word “A” in the title of this book is overly modest; it is in fact “The” dictionary of NZSL published to date.

At 755 large pages containing 4000 illustrated signs, it is not so much a throw-in-your-satchel phrase book as a hefty reference volume for the bookshelf of sign language learners, teachers, schools, linguists, or anyone with an interest in this indigenous visual language. I’m one such interested person, celebrating the dictionary’s birth after a minor involvement in its six-year gestation, as an occasional data-gatherer and commenter. Now six months on from my last back-room view of the blood, sweat, and everything else that led up to the final stages of its production last November, I return to re-view it afresh.

At the request of the Deaf Association of New Zealand, the Dictionary was compiled at the Deaf Studies Research Unit of Victoria University under the direction of Professor Graeme Kennedy. It was eagerly anticipated by the Deaf community because of its symbolic and functional significance in ending the era of NZSL as an underground (or more literally playground) language, proscribed and demeaned by experts in childhood deafness from 1880 until about 1980.

The use of NZSL is the glue for the Deaf community, and a hallmark of Deaf identity. Deaf people tell me that signing is valued because it allows 100% visually accessible communication, compared to speech and lip-reading which is anywhere between 0-30% comprehensible. The interest and pride expressed by the grassroots Deaf community over this dictionary suggest its publication is a potent symbol that the wider world recognises their identity as a minority language community.

The historical background to NZSL is summarised in the dictionary in an informative introductory chapter about the nature of the language, along with detailed notes on how to navigate the dictionary, and a description of how it was compiled. Beyond its visually striking presentation, this book is impressive as an extensive body of research on a little known language. Each sign had to be collected and identified on video, checked with groups of signers for validity in three regions of New Zealand, then painstakingly drawn, described, and analysed for meaning and structure.

The editorial team’s task was akin to making a first dictionary of an unwritten oral language. Decisions in new territory had to be made at each step of the way, about which, and how, signs would be described. I observed parts of this process, as a colleague in the small field of Deaf Studies, and can vouch that it was no mean task – from either a linguistic or technical point of view. Many entries in the dictionary reflected the complicating fact that the New Zealand Deaf community accepts a wide range of variation in the use of signs in NZSL. For example, there is an older sign and a newer sign for school (the traditional sign being similar to the sign for prison, and the new one relating to the act of reading.)

The dictionary also captures some regional differences. For example, Auckland and Christchurch have different signs for “get the sack”, and Christchurch and Wellington have a sign for “pavlova” not used in Auckland, according to the dictionary entry. Regional variation in NZSL remains rather complicated to untangle definitively within the scope of a dictionary, due to marked differences in vocabulary usage between older and younger signers, and the influence of ongoing borrowings into NZSL from Australian, British and American sign languages – which may interact with regional patterns.

Browsers in the dictionary will quickly realise that, like any other two languages, the lexicon of NZSL and English do not correspond in a one-to-one relationship. For instance, the dictionary reveals that the verb “to pee” takes different forms depending on gender, and against the English index entry for “fire”, there are no less than ten signs referenced.

Not surprisingly, since “fire” in English has several distinct meanings, but in NZSL this is further expanded by alternative signs for each of the meanings. The editors have obviously endeavoured to include all widely accepted variants of signs, to avoid the risk of being prescriptive in how the lexicon is represented. It will be interesting to see long-term what effect, if any, the dictionary will have on standardising NZSL, which has previously not had any authoritative form other than vernacular usage. NZSL is changing and growing rapidly at present for a variety of reasons, and undoubtedly there will someday be revised editions in store, hopefully in CD-ROM form.

Perhaps puzzling at first to most readers will be the way the signs are ordered in the dictionary – not by anything remotely alphabetical in the English sense, but according to handshake groupings. In sign language terms this is perfectly logical, since signs are constructed from handshakes, locations in space, and movements, rather than sounds. This organisation encourages readers to perceive NZSL as a visually, spatially structured linguistic system rather than just a set of signs to match English words.

At 4000 signs, this dictionary is bigger than most overseas sign language dictionaries in print, yet still it does not capture anywhere near the entire language, as the editors acknowledge at the outset. In designing the dictionary, Kennedy aimed to include NZSL vocabulary for all the most universal concepts in human experience, as well as capturing signs relating to the Deaf experience, the New Zealand locality, and Deaf Maori experience. In this it has amply succeeded, though some readers are bound to find lexical gaps where the dictionary has not recorded certain meanings – either because such concepts may not be commonly discussed in the Deaf community, or simply because the resources were not available to record them within the six-year project (extremely short in dictionary-making terms).

The calibre of analysis of the signs and the logic of the layout distinguish this dictionary from the older model of many sign dictionaries made in other countries, which simply list pictures of signs alongside a one-word translation, in alphabetical order of the spoken language. Each entry in this dictionary includes a clear line-drawing of a signer making the sign (drawn by a Deaf artist), an English translation and synonyms for the signs meaning, a description of how to make the sign, examples of contexts in which the sign can be used, the grammatical class of the sign, regions of New Zealand in which the sign was validated, and finally a phonetic transcription of the sign using an international symbol system for transcribing signed languages. In combination, these features make the dictionary a work which will impress scholars of sign language as well as the major target audience of ordinary people who want to learn New Zealand sign language. Keeping an eye to the ground, so to speak, the dictionary has generated reactions from all quarters of awe, fascination, and appreciation of this rare resource for New Zealanders.

Rachel McKee is a lecturer in Deaf Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

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