Our grandson, 13 months old, can only speak a few syllables, but these few all the more forcefully. Suddenly overcome with excitement, the sweet little boy will shout at penetrating volume and in a commanding tone “Dat!” or “Ayt!” or “Mammammam!”
He’s not yet able to say “more!” – but he can signify it with a gesture. His mother explained that he had already learned a few signs of Baby Sign Language (Baby SL). When he wants to nurse, he makes the sign for “milk.” It is derived from the act of milking a cow: he opens and closes his little fist in a milking motion.
The little boy doesn’t know how a cow is milked, but the big boys, who thought up the gesture and transferred it to mother’s milk, surely do. Mamma gets milked just like a cow.
I didn’t find this all especially comical. It’s true that as creatures of Mother Nature we shouldn’t elevate ourselves above the animals, but this equation of nursing mothers with milk cattle thoroughly displeased all the women in our family.
Now warily suspicious, I checked out a few more gestures of Baby SL, of American Sign Language (ASL) and of International Sign Language (ISL). The sign for “mother” in Baby SL as in ASL is: thumb on chin in a right angle with the hand extended and the other four fingers splayed. The sign for “father” is identical, just located one level higher, at the forehead – there where the male intellect is presumed to reside. The sign for “grandfather” is derived from the sign for “father,” for according to the apt explanation, “the grandfather is after all the father’s father.” Or the mother’s father, but this variation apparently had not occurred to the sign language developers and interpreters. And the sign for “grandmother” is correspondingly formed: it is derived from the sign for “mother” and is once again attached to the lower half of the face. The Baby Sign Language website further informs us that this sign can also be used to refer to older women in general.
A similar suggestion is missing from the description of the sign for “grandfather.” Older men do not exist as a general category, you see; they are industrial managers, political leaders or conductors, etc. In any event they are not, without a closer look, all grampas.
The scheme “above – below” organizes every hierarchical system, whether feudal, capitalist, patriarchal, something else, all of the above, or some of each. The rulers are above, the ruled below. In American Sign Language the sexes are differentiated precisely according to this principle: The upper half of the face, where the control-center brain is located, belongs to the masculine concepts, the lower half to the feminine ones. On Youtube a man makes this abundantly clear and apparently has no problems with it. Here is the text to the video:
Learn how to tell the difference between male and female signs in American Sign Language (ASL). The top half of your face is used for male signs such as MAN, BOY, FATHER, SON, UNCLE, etc. while the bottom half of your face is used for female signs such as WOMAN, GIRL, MOTHER, DAUGHTER, AUNT, etc. Additional gender signs are included in this video. Enjoy!
Disgusted by the sexist structure of even these languages, I sought consolation with the ISL (International Sign Language). The sign for “man” looks similar to a brisk military salute, the hand snappily held at the forehead. The sign for “woman” is a light tugging on the ear lobe (where a woman might have an earring dangling), or by the suggestion of a half-sphere at the level of the bosom.
The British Sign Language shows that other solutions are possible. Here the sign for “man” is a gesture that suggests a beard. Of course, not every man wears a beard, but the body part that is common to all men is situated perhaps really too far “below.” And besides, such a crude equivalence is appropriate only for women and their udder – er, bosom.
(trans. Joey Horsley)
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