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April 4, 2004

Giving the finger to un-PC sign language

From: - New Zealand - Apr 4, 2004


It's a sign of the times - politically incorrect sign language is being given the thumbs down.

Traditional signs used by deaf people to signify ethnic and religious groups are being dropped because they're now considered offensive.

Signs on the way out include:

A two-handed gesture indicating big, fuzzy hair for the words Fiji or Fijian;

Eyes being pulled into a slant for the words China or Chinese;

A limp wrist, indicating a gay person.

A Fijian is now signified by a gesture for the letter F, and a hand movement to suggest a scattering of islands and a Chinese person is indicated with a hand movement across the chest and down, as in a Chinese-style tunic. The new symbol for a gay person is tapping together the right-hand thumb and forefinger.

The sign for Samoa or Samoan - once a gesture indicating a broad, flat nose - is now a fist facing outwards, denoting "strong man". Jew or Jewish - once a hand mimicking a hooked nose - is now the sign of a beard.

Critics have labelled some of the changes silly but the Deaf Association says the influx of different cultures has led to the adoption of some international signs. "We are more aware of the appropriate use of signs that can be offensive," said Deaf Association community relations officer Brent Macpherson. "It's not really political correctness gone mad. It's more to do with respecting each other."

The row over politically correct sign language is being vigorously argued in America and Britain.

Benci Woll, a lecturer in linguistics at London's City University, told The Sunday Telegraph sign language evolved quickly, inevitably leading to debates over which signs were permissible.

"It is a practical language that has its own regional variations and is not subjected to censorship from an official body that has the right to decide which words are OK to use. A vigorous debate is healthy," Woll said.

One sign that has been changed in Britain, but remains the same in New Zealand, is India - the index finger pointing to a spot on the forehead. Association deaf awareness officer Victoria Skorikova said Indian-born deaf people in New Zealand used the sign for themselves. In Britain, deaf people must now try to outline the shape of India. "(That) seems a bit of a challenge, especially if they expand this idea for other places," said English deaf comedian Steve Day. "New Zealand, for example, would be a bit like doing a shadow puppet of a bird."

The changes come as sign language is to be recognised as the country's third official language. The New Zealand Sign Language Bill is expected to become law in 2005.

© Fairfax New Zealand Limited 2004.