American Sign Language

American sign language, or ASL, is a communications-based decryption element, established as a visual way of communicating for deaf or hearing-impaired people. While less commonly-used in puzzle hunts than other communications-based elements, it and finger binary remain the two most prominent ways of expressing individual letters via hand positions.

Background[edit | edit source]

See also: W:American Sign Language

Sign language as a whole has a long history beyond its modern use as a deaf aid. Original use was to allow communication across linguistic and cultural boundaries, and is documented at least as far back as 1541, when its use by natives of the Great Plains was recorded by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado.

Modern sign language for use by/with deaf people in the US has origins in New England, where a trifecta of sign languages emerged in the communities of Martha's Vineyard, Henniker, and Sandy River Valley. Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, or MVSL, was particularly well-developed, due to the high rate of genetic deafness in the community, and the necessity of communicating with deaf community members. What we now know as ASL, however, likely originated in Hartford, Connecticut at the American School for the Deaf, when a large group of people from all three of these communities attended during the first few years of the institute being open. A mix of the three sign languages, as well as the French Sign Language taught by the first teacher at the school, ended up evolving into today's American Sign Language. As a result of this formation, ASL has some similarities with French Sign Language.

Over time, ASL grew to be used across the US, thanks to it being adopted by the addition schools for the deaf that opened across the country. Despite this, however, it was considered inferior to the process of lip-reading and oral communication by linguists until the 1950s. Between 1955 and the mid-1960's, linguist William Stokoe pushed for the inclusion of ASL in regular deaf education, including devising the modern transcription system for it.

Variations[edit | edit source]

The SignWriting depiction of the phrase 'SignWriting'.

The locale of a particular ASL user can affect both how particular words are signed, as well as the general flow and speed with which sentences are formed. In addition, ASL has been spread to regions outside of the United States, resulting in additional variations of ASL (such as Bolivian Sign Language) as well as mutations of the language that have become so visually distinct that they cannot be used to communicate with someone only fluent in ASL (such as Malaysian Sign Language)

There are also several types of Tactile ASL (TASL) that are used by deaf-blind people, with the variations depending somewhat on whether the user has any experience with visual or oral communication prior to losing sight/hearing.

SignWriting[edit | edit source]

See Also: W:SignWriting

A more recent development in sign language is the creation of SignWriting, one of the writing systems developed by Valerie Sutton as part the International Movement Writing Alphabet. Its purpose is to be able to describe sign languages (including ASL) symbolically, through icons representing hand shapes, movements, orientation, and body/eye/face movements.

SignWriting has been inducted into the Unicode Standard, making it more accessible, but since proper use involves proper orientation and placement of symbols most transcription in SignWriting has to be done through special programs like SignMaker. Despite this setback, the system has been used to caption videos and translate newsletters and the like, being one of the only written systems that manages to capture the non-manual aspects of sign language, like facial expressions and posture.

Puzzle Applications[edit | edit source]

The American Manual Alphabet, as used in ASL.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the wide range of words. phrases, and dialects available across all of ASL, the most common way the language is used in puzzles is via the American Manual Alphabet, or AMA. Since the AMA is taught even to non-ASL speakers, it's often considered to be common knowledge (to some degree). Additionally, all of the letters are displayed single-handedly, which allows them to be hidden within pictures and videos without making it totally obvious that ASL is being used.

Puzzles tend to use AMA in one of two cases: either as an extraction method, wherein a small number of hand symbols are presented to get across a short word or phrase; or as a full encryption, wherein long strings of text are replaced with video/images of someone performing a string of hand symbols or with hand drawings/Unicode characters.

When puzzles do use words and phrases in ASL, they'll often use a specific source, as varying referenced may result in gestures coming from different dialects. Conversely, puzzles rarely use translations from written English to ASL, particularly due to the large number of varying sources. For example, the word "about" has at least six different ways to sign it depending on use and locale. As such, unless a source is specified or connecting factors are included that allow solvers to identify the correct source, English-to-ASL word translations should be avoided.

Strategy[edit | edit source]

Hand Gestures and Symbols[edit | edit source]

When a puzzle utilizes ASL hand shapes, gestures, or the AMA as a whole, it will usually be quite clear that ASL is being used. While it is possible for particular hand symbols to be finger binary instead, certain numbers in that will not be any particular number in ASL (such as a right-handed 19). Similarly, the symbol for "9" in ASL (on the right hand) is the equivalent of a 28 in finger binary (which is unlikely to occur in most alphanumeric/index scenarios). If either of these numeric hand symbols show up, you can be reasonably certain that one system is being used over the other. In addition, most AMA letters are distinct from finger binary, and any movement-based signs will not be confused, as finger binary is meant as a static system. They may, however, be confused with other hand symbols, such as referee/umpire signals from various sports, or other unaffiliated symbols like the Hawaiian 'Shaka' symbol or the 'hand horns' gesture.

Words and Phrases[edit | edit source]

When faced with text that may be translated into ASL, it's impossible to know that this will be needed unless there are additional hints elsewhere in the puzzle. These can include allusions to deafness or silence or a reference to hands or gestures. If you think you need to translate the words/phrases into ASL (or any other sign language), check the puzzle to see if it's steering you towards using a particular source (Lifeprint vs. HandSpeak, for example). If not, pick a major source and attempt to locate translations for all of the given entries. It's possible that a particular source was used by the writers because it contained translations for certain words and phrases, which would mean that others might not have them. If a phrase is missing from one but included in another, rule out the first (for now) and switch to the other one.

It's also possible that the writer consulted an actual ASL speaker rather than an online source, in which case you may just have to deal with a more difficult puzzle, as without knowing the dialect that was referenced you may end up unable to find the exact translation the author expects you to find. Don't fret, though! As is the case with most translation-based puzzles, you will probably be able to get by with most of the correct information, and it's unlikely that everything will be affected by regional differences.

Notable Examples[edit | edit source]

Played Straight[edit | edit source]

  • Quagmire (MITMH 2004) (web) - After the maze in the puzzle is solved, the path taken traces out some AMA letters, spelling out the final clue phrase.
  • Louder Than Words (MITMH 2006) (web) - A rare case of English-to-ASL translation. Uses groupings based on common hand-shapes to help determine a consistent source.

Notable Twists[edit | edit source]

  • To do TO DO

See Also[edit | edit source]