'Flipping the bird' a misunderstanding?

During the NSW bushfire emergency, some viewers got a rude shock when they saw the Auslan interpreter apparently ‘flipping the bird’ to the cameras. Was the interpreter being cheeky or was this a a simple misunderstanding? Sign languages expert Adam Schembri explains.

Auslan/flipping the birdAs a child in the 1970s, I remember a game many of us used to play on the roadsides of suburban Sydney. As a result of this television advertising campaign for the new (at the time!) Chrysler Valiant Charger, if one of us spotted a Charger passing by, we’d make the two-fingered ‘V for Victory’ gesture while yelling out ‘Hey, Charger!’ As in the TV ad, the driver was expected to respond with the same gesture.

Of course, after a while, our focus would drift and we’d direct this gesture to any passing car. If the driver didn’t respond appropriately, we had what we thought was a brilliant response to show our disappointment and disapproval – we’d turn the handshape around so that the palm was facing the body, and precede to do the ‘Up yours’ gesture, and then run as fast as we could away from the road if the driver happened to notice.

The reason I recount this story is because it seems to nicely reflect a change in the Australian emblematic gesture inventory. At the time, we were only vaguely aware of the obscene ‘flipping the bird’ gesture in which the middle finger is extending from the fist. In fact, it seems that the middle finger gesture, perhaps borrowed from the USA, has become much more widely known and used today than was true 40 years ago. I suspect in fact, that it has almost completely replaced the more traditional obscene two-fingered salute amongst people aged under 40.

Recently however, the taboo associated with the ‘flipping the bird’ gesture has led to some interesting cross-cultural misunderstandings between the Deaf community and the wider hearing population in Australia.

Auslan is the natural sign language of the Deaf community, but it also has always drawn on the gestural inventory of the ambient hearing culture, just as all sign languages do. For example, the thumbs up conventional gesture means ‘good’ in Auslan, just as it does in the hearing community.

However, Auslan has also developed many unique characteristics that distinguish it from the gestural communication of hearing non-signers. The handshape in ‘good’, for example, is incorporated into a range of signs, such as signs that mean ‘better’, ‘best’ and another that means ‘praise’ or ‘congratulate’ to form a family of related signs that are not shared with the hearing world.

As it happens, a small set of Auslan signs use the same hand configuration (i.e., the middle finger extended from the fist) as the one in the flipping the bird gesture. This handshape is combined with a range of movement types, for signs meaning variously ‘spare’, ‘vacant’ or ‘available’, ‘holiday’, ‘lazy’, and ‘stubborn’. None of these signs appear in any way to be related to the obscene gesture, and are commonly used by signers in the Auslan community today without any offensive connotation. Most of these signs have identical or similar forms in the historically related British Sign Language (BSL), which suggest that these signs pre-date the introduction of the middle finger obscene gesture into Australian and British culture.

In social media over the last few days, a photo has begun circulating which captures Sheena Walters, an Auslan/English interpreter, in the middle of producing one of these signs while interpreting for the NSW Rural Fire Service. The photo has been given a number of different captions, most of which make some joke about what the interpreter is actually trying to convey, playing on the link between the handshape used and the flipping the bird gesture.

Some online responses have been incredulous, suggesting that the image has been digitally manipulated in some way. It’s not clear what the interpreter was signing at the time, but it is likely to be ‘available’ (e.g., ‘assistance for those affected is available…’).

Personally, like some members of the Deaf community, I’ve got very mixed feelings about this situation.

On the one hand, this kind of insensitive humour reflects deep levels of ignorance about the importance of providing Auslan/English interpreters on television during natural disasters as well as the relationship between hearing people’s gesture and the language of Australia’s Deaf community.

On the other hand, the joke no doubt provided some light relief to a bush-fire affected community under severe stress, and it also exposed people to Auslan and gave an opportunity for Deaf and hearing signers to correct assumptions about sign and gesture online.

In fact, the Deaf Society of NSW has already been successfully marketing its Auslan courses by employing the use of the handshape from the flipping the bird gesture in its advertising, shown here. The British Deaf Association also did something similar in the past, with large posters showing the sign for ‘lazy/idle’ and characterising this as the British government’s response to recognition of British Sign Language, fully aware that the handshape would be misinterpreted by the non-signer.

Over the last few decades, the middle finger gesture has in fact moved into the Auslan lexicon, and – by analogy with existing grammatical patterns within the language – it has become an indicating verb that can be modified in terms of location and movement to indicate person and number, as Adam Hills so nicely demonstrates.

In fact, signers often modify some signs for comical effect, changing the extended index finger in the sign meaning ‘hearing person’ to the extended middle finger to express their frustration with a sometimes unsympathetic hearing world.

Some of the most interesting comments in social media have come from some Deaf people who admit that they avoid the middle finger extended signs whenever possible (other lexical variants exist for ‘holiday’, for example), and they do not use these signs in introductory classes on Auslan, for fear of causing offense. Some even have called for others to drop the use of these signs. Indeed, this appears to be a change underway in BSL, where some signers produce the sign for ‘holiday’, for example, with extended index finger rather than the middle finger.

This may be the result of the fact that television broadcasts are regularly interpreted into BSL in the UK, and there are regular programmes in BSL for the Deaf community, and thus, the language has a much higher profile there and appears to have come under increasing pressure from the hearing population.  

Personally, I would be sad to see this change take hold in Auslan, as it would result in a lessening of the linguistic and gestural diversity in Australia today, as well as the loss of a unique aspect of Australia’s cultural heritage.

First published on the Crikey language blog, Fully (sic), on 25 October 2013. 

Dr Adam Schembri is an Associate Professor in the Linguistics program in the Department of Languages, Histories and Cultures at La Trobe University, and one of a very small handful of sign language researchers.

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