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Selected article:

Ariel Baker-Gibbs

Letter, Letter, Letter, Letter = Word

Fingerspelling is intrinsic to American Sign Language (ASL). It has its own iconic reality and prosody; choices about when to fingerspell can impact the grammatical function of a word. In conversation, the choice to fingerspell a word that could be signed makes a particular emphasis—irony, enthusiasm, frustration, sarcasm, relish. Written text in informal Deaf spaces online sometimes translates to fingerspelling for me, such as “it was a m a z i n g.” Is that the same orthographic emphasis as if someone drawled online, “it was amaaaazing,” or exclaimed, “it was AMAZING”? That would appear in the sign with drawn out movements or exaggerated force; it’d be conversational, effusive. Excess vowels or capitalization cue the emotional content.

But I keep thinking about a conversation I had with an elderly Deaf woman about her survival of an abusive marriage with a hearing man. She said he was so sweet while they were dating but as soon as they married, he stopped signing and started beating her. “But I loved him,” she said. She didn’t sign the word, “loved;” she fingerspelled it. “But I l o v e d him.” She seized the word in her hand, disassembled it and defamiliarized it from itself, gave every part of it weight. She could’ve signed “love,” but it would’ve meant something different, something a little more contained, trustworthy.

How would that choice appear in captions? The word “caption” comes from the Latin word that means “to seize.” Captions became captions only through a slow etymological evolution going from seizing by force, to the legal certificates of “caption,” to just the “caption” that refers to the title in those legal documents, to how these “captions” summarize what is taking place in a picture or film—the dialogue, the information. It’s a seizing of what used to be material goods, but now is just an idea. Captions capture something or try to.

But it seems to be a flat base value. The perceived excesses of emotional or ironic weight don’t appear in closed captioning. If we capitalized and added multiple punctuation marks in high-tension moments like Sally Field yelling “Why? Why? Why?” at her daughter’s funeral in Steel Magnolias, or Sean Penn in Mystic River (“Is that my daughter in there?” delivered in a violent shout) it would become a joke. The emotional delivery is supposed to speak for itself, through body movement, physical expression, volume, and pitch. But what if the person chooses to express themselves through a linguistic choice?

When it’s for emphasis only, fingerspelling feels different. It translates to something other than the laborious “el-oh-vee-ee-dee” or “ay-em-ay-zed-eye-en-gee” of spelling out loud. There is a staggered spatial completeness that happens with fingerspelling in these particular situations, a forcing of the listener to wait, to take the time to pay attention to the word that the speaker chose, to its irony and ideological frailty.

Recently, online, one Deaf woman asked her Deaf dad in ASL what he would do if he had a million dollars. He said, “W i s h, I wish!”

Ariel Baker-Gibbs is working on her PhD in English literature at UC Berkeley on how the concept of the young adult across a variety of genres reveals contemporary attitudes toward time. As a bilingual thinker, Baker-Gibbs also studies and writes about questions of translation, embodiment, queerness, disability, and geography.