Sign language ‘bible’ under major revision

by Kento Iwamura

Kyodo News

KYOTO — Around 1.2 million people are estimated to use sign language in Japan. While they have to deal with new words and phrases that are constantly emerging in fields such as information technology, many also say they have difficulty expressing subtle nuances peculiar to Japanese.

To address these issues, the first major revision in over a decade to a sign language dictionary is under way, aiming to make sign language easier to understand and use.

University professors, former teachers at schools for the deaf and others gathered in June at a sign language training institute in Kyoto to discuss a wholesale revision of “Nihongo — Shuwa Jiten” (“Japanese Sign Language Dictionary”), a work compiled in 1997 that lists words and phrases along with sample sentences that are useful in conversation.

At the meeting they tackled issues such as how to use sign language to express the phrase “futokoro ga itamu,” a rough equivalent to “hit someone in the pocketbook” in English.

“Futokoro ga itamu” means cash in hand is getting scarce. A “futokoro” is an inside breast pocket where a wallet can be placed, while “itamu” denotes “hurt.” The Japanese expression also conveys the nuance that one is in pain because of mounting expenditures.

One expert ventured, “How about pointing with a finger to the chest (futokoro) and then waving a hand to express being in pain (itamu).”

“That would just mean ‘the chest hurts,’ ” replied another.

“Or better yet, why don’t we just adopt a gesture for throwing money away,” another person suggested.

Even though the topic was debated for hours, the participants, all members of the Japan Institute for Sign Language Studies in Kyoto, could not reach a conclusion.

“Just lining up words could run the risk of producing a completely different meaning,” said Akihiko Yonekawa, supervising editor of the dictionary who teaches at Baika Women’s University in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture.

How sign language originated in Japan remains a mystery. Some say it was derived from hearing and watching the impaired using gestures, while others say signs were created as a tool for instruction at schools for the deaf.

Like spoken languages, sign languages vary depending on countries or regions.

In Japan, a school for the blind and hearing impaired was first established in 1878 in Kyoto, using sign language for instruction. Thereafter, a number of organizations were set up around the country for the hearing impaired and for those wishing to learn the language.

In 1969, the Japanese Federation of the Deaf in Tokyo published a lexicon called “Watashitachi no Shuwa” (“Our Sign Language”), the first attempt to catalog common sign language expressions used nationwide. Some people, however, were puzzled by the use of certain words that have a wide range of meanings, such as “nomu,” a verb meaning literally “to drink” but which is also used to mean taking medicine or catching one’s breath.

Next spring, the Japan Institute for Sign Language Studies is planning to publish a revised edition of its dictionary that contains 6,000 words and more than 10,000 sample sentences, which around 20 percent more entries than the 1997 edition, according to editors.