Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Major revision of sign language dictionary under way"

From today's Japan Today:

Around 1.2 million people are said to be using sign language in Japan. While they are dealing with new words and phrases that constantly emerge such as in information technology, many also say they are often confronted with difficulty expressing subtle nuances peculiar to Japanese.

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

University professors, former teachers at schools for the deaf and others gathered at a sign language training institute in Kyoto in June for discussions on how to express in sign language ‘‘futokoro ga itamu’’ in Japanese, a rough equivalent to ‘‘hit someone in the pocketbook’’ in English.

One expert said, ‘‘How about pointing out with a finger to the chest (futokoro) and then wave a hand to express being in pain (itamu).’’ 

‘‘It would just mean ‘the chest hurts’,’’ followed another.

‘‘Or better yet, why don’t we just adopt a gesture for throwing money away,’’ another person said.
Even though discussions on this topic were drawn out for hours, they—all members of the Japan Institute for Sign Language Studies in Kyoto—could not reach a conclusion at the meeting, where they also deliberated on other issues.

They are engaged in a wholesale revision of ‘‘Nihongo - Shuwa jiten’’ (Japanese Sign Language Dictionary), a work compiled in 1997 that lists words and phrases along with example sentences that would be useful in conversation.

‘‘Futokoro ga itamu’’ means cash in hand is getting scarce. ‘‘Futokoro’’ is an inside breast pocket where one places a wallet, while ‘‘itamu’’ denotes ‘‘hurt.’’ The Japanese expression is also loaded with the nuance that one is in pain because of mounting expenditures.

‘‘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 exactly originated in Japan remains shrouded in mystery. Some say it was derived from ‘‘conversations’’ of hearing impaired people 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 region.

In Japan, a school for the blind and hearing impaired was established in 1878 in Kyoto, where sign language was used for instruction. Thereafter, a number of organizations were set up in various parts of the country for hearing-impaired people 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 list sign language expressions commonly used nationwide. Some people, however, were puzzled by the use of some words that appear in a wide range of expressions such as ‘‘nomu,’’ a verb, meaning literally ‘‘to drink,’’ but which is used for not just drinking liquids but also taking medicine or catching one’s breath.

The Japan Institute for Sign Language Studies is planning to publish the revised edition of its dictionary next spring with around 6,000 words and more than 10,000 example sentences, around 20 percent more entries than its 1997 edition, according to editors.

To be added are words from information technology, health care and other areas. ‘‘The Internet,’’ for instance, is expressed with the clenched left hand encircled once by the right hand with the little finger lifted, while ‘‘influenza’’ requires the right hand with the little finger lifted put in front of the mouth accompanied by coughing, the editors say.

In Europe and the United States, many private-sector companies and government offices have dedicated sign language interpreters. In Japan, sign language services are provided often only by volunteers, who are limited in number.

Eiichi Takada, the 77-year-old director of the institute who is also hearing-impaired, said, ‘‘Through this dictionary, I hope an increasing number of people will feel more familiar with sign language and study it.’’

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