Shah Rukh Khan (Photo: Twitter/@iamsrk)
No. Don’t spread your hands and come into my arms smiling. Instead, simply hold the fingers of your right hand like a gun and double tap above your heart.
It may not be as romantic as Shah Rukh’s signature gesture of love, but it’s King Khan’s official silent shorthand according to the latest Indian Sign Language (ISL) dictionary launched by the Prime Minister. Narendra Modi earlier this month. Khan’s name is among 10,000 words, including ‘Deaflympics’, ‘online banking’ and ‘carpooling’, which have been newly written into India’s non-vocal lexicon digital dictionary.
Developed and released by the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Center (ISLRTC) as a DVD with corresponding videos of signs for each word, this new visual dictionary is worth watching, especially in Daylight of Sign Languages, which also won its own official sign this year.
Among the delights offered by the non-verbal vocabulary that now runs the gamut from technical terms such as “quadruped robots” to academic abstractions such as “anti-trust policy”, is watching the performer’s face crumpling while frowning while conveying “tight clothes” and inflating while showing an “air mattress”. When the gesture for “tax” is accompanied by a morose expression, the spoken word seems redundant as a means of communication.
It is to erase the communication barriers between the deaf people – 18 million according to estimates – and the hearing communities that the ISLRTC launched in 2018 the first dictionary of Indian sign language of 3,000 terms.
“When I was a deaf child, my special educators were not able to explain abstract philosophies because they never knew ISL. They used their spoken language to explain abstract things and they found it difficult to teach,” recalls Sunil Sahasrabudhe, vice president of the All-India Federation of the Deaf.
Sahasrabuddhe finds the “long overdue” new ISL dictionary as someone who has taught English literacy to deaf children in schools and young deaf adults in NGOs, in addition to several ISL (deaf) teachers and ISL interpreters . “ISL vocabulary is not and never will be limited. This can continue to grow as Deaf people interact and engage with different concepts,” Sahasrabudhe says in an email interview.
While the lockdown has interfered with in-person encounters crucial for vocabulary building of deaf people, the use of masks has made navigating daily tasks such as buying vegetables tricky for deaf members who rely on the lip reading. “If hearing people learned basic sign language, then such difficulties could easily be avoided,” said Mansi Shah of Indian Signing Hands, which runs an online news channel for the deaf community.
So far, 142 different sign languages have been studied around the world. The model dictionary to aspire to, according to city interpreter Neeta Mukherji, is the Finnish Sign Language dictionary. Besides a digital video version, it is accompanied by a voluminous printed version where the panels are explained with numerous diagrams.
Even as she waits for the print version of ISLRTC’s DVD dictionary, Mukherji, who interprets Marathi through sign language at a school for the deaf in Thane, uses an Indo-Pak sign language dictionary that had been released from Coimbatore a few years ago. Filled with economic and scientific terms, time, and even a few regional dialect variations, this book tends to be his go-to recommendation for someone new to the mechanics of unvoiced language.