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On Monday, March 4, The New York Times published an in its Gameplay column, “American Sign Language Reveals Wordplay Beyond Sound.” Instructional designer Eric Epstein and linguistics professor Julie Hochgesang are quoted at length in this article, and multimedia designer Meeya Tjiang contributed three illustrations, two of which are animated.  

The article, by Times reporter Sam Corbin, chronicles her decision to take ASL courses at the Sign Language Center in Manhattan. “Thanks to an increased immersion in linguistic spaces, I was confronting a gaping hole in my bona fides as a so-called wordplay expert, whose career might be reduced to ‘just puns’ in the same way that Ken from the Barbie movie described his job as ‘just beach,’ Corbin wrote. 

Epstein, the instructional designer, is also an ASL poet. He explained that we should not force comparisons between English and ASL. According to Corbin, Epstein said that it made no sense to use rubrics designed for oral languages to describe the modalities of ASL. “It’s like going to a dance show and saying, ‘That’s a noun; that’s a verb,’” he said. “No, it’s not. If you go to a dance show, you learn the terms the professional dancers use – they use arabesque, pirouette. You don’t try to force them to fit a system that you think in.” The article contains a video clip of Colin Analco, E-’13, signing a Hamlet passage that has a double meaning. This translation was by Neil Sprouse, E-’13, who served as director of artistic sign language for the 2023 Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III.

Hochgesang, the linguist, talked about puns in American Sign Language and how they are so unique when compared with pun in spoken languages. “Basically any phonological component is up for manipulation,” she said, qualifying the statement by pointing out that such manipulations weren’t always intentional. “You know slips of the tongue in English? I’m especially prone to them in ASL – parts get swapped all the time!”  

She also said that “I wish that everyone would learn signed language. It’s so interesting to me how we’ve gotten so hung up on the spoken mode and it has so much prestige.” 

Corbin concludes that “More fluent signers means a greater ease in communicating with the deaf storytellers who make the ASL landscape as rich as it is today — wordplay included.” 

It’s a great read, as are all Gameplay columns in the Times, available to paid subscribers of the Times or its Games app. 

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