Something I've often wondered (and I suppose this goes for all kinds of technical terminology, not just that of mathematics) is what kind of sign language exists for practising professional mathematicians.

I've looked at some online video dictionaries, such as this video, but they all seem to be very low-level, 'classroom' mathematics. I can't imagine finding any sign for 'diffeomorphism' amongst them, for instance.

Of course, I suppose that deaf mathematicians can always just spell the terminology out, but I can see that getting old quickly. And I imagine that since a lot of mathematical correspondence is written anyway, it is perhaps less crucial in mathematics to have a full sign language dictionary than in, say, medicine.

Are there any deaf mathematicians out there who can weigh in on this subject? How do you communicate mathematics face-to-face?

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    $\begingroup$ There's probably much more hand waving. $\endgroup$ – Taylor Jun 17 '15 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ It's much more difficult and time consuming for someone to come up with sign language for a complicated field like Mathematics then for them to ignore it, stating that the number of deaf Mathematicians are negligible. How many deaf Mathematicians are there? If they are, wouldn't they still be able to talk and lipread? $\endgroup$ – Kbot Jun 17 '15 at 1:29
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    $\begingroup$ The blind mathematicians made contributions to abstract mathematics... $\endgroup$ – DVD Jun 24 '15 at 0:08
  • $\begingroup$ maybe reading/writting symbols is used, but having a sign language would be great. if im not mistaken sign language can be overloaded, meaning same gestures can mean more than one thing depending on context $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Jun 24 '15 at 5:18
  • $\begingroup$ Euler was blind for the later half of his life...he still was able to do math. He is an exception of course, but still. $\endgroup$ – Zach466920 Jun 24 '15 at 16:01

After a few years in one of the leading ASL as a 2nd language programs, I found that I had developed very good basic interpersonal communications skills (BICS) in the language (as well as new visual attending skills and awareness of sign phonemes, ASL being my first signed language).

As is quite often the case, this new proficiency allowed me converse w/ people I might not have even met had I forgone its acquisition....It so happens there was a Deaf chemist on the faculty of my university and though I was not studying chemistry, I did call on this prof in office hours to discuss other facets of university life. Priding myself on my large vocabulary in English (my native language), for me, one of, if not the most difficult aspect of learning new languages is struggling with expression w/ a constrained lexicon. I had by that point been fairly confident in my ASL as goes social topics and was itching to be able to fluently describe my research (in the social sciences) in ASL. And so naturally, I asked the chem prof about that as pertains to his more technical field.

To the best of my recollection, he said that Deaf scientists tend to be scattered geographically and so they typically only have occasion to discuss their work in ASL w/ a small group of colleagues. They coin their own signs, in accordance w/ the language's morphology (if you're going "Huh?" check out this https://booksite.elsevier.com/samplechapters/9780080442990/Look_Inside/11~Article-Sign_Language-Morphology.pdf). I asked what happens when they get together at national conventions or such. He said when they're talking and one utters a locally-coined sign unknown to the listener, they will use definition an/or the English or Latin equivalent to get the concept across. Then, the listener will give the sign they use and there may follow discussion of which to adopt. And so jargon signs get standardized....

My other line of thought on this topic is that like in other languages used in a large geographical area, ASL has regional dialects. Like in English, New England's "bubbler" is the West Coast's "water fountain." Sometimes a language keeps multiple lexical units for a single referent. I was taught three ASL signs for "an electronic device for storing and processing data." I tend to use the one that I articulate most clearly, but in the region where I learned the language, I think all are readily understood (but perhaps--idk--back when electronic computers were new, that was not the case).

I hope that was helpful.

Oh and if you are curious about ASL linguistics, the best source in English is, IMHO, Linguistics of American Sign Language: An introduction. See http://www.worldcat.org/title/linguistics-of-american-sign-language-an-introduction/oclc/779454136&referer=brief_results. I also recommend the video component of the 3rd ed; I found it highly instructive as a learner (it's in ASL, but w/ an English VO). See http://www.worldcat.org/title/linguistics-of-american-sign-language-an-introduction-course-videotape/oclc/84290871&referer=brief_results

Good day!

  • $\begingroup$ Given the age of this question, I consider it likely that this is the closest response we'll get to a true answer -- even though it mentions chemistry terminology, there is nothing which doesn't also apply to the kind of technical communication required by mathematics. The linked document on sign morphology is fascinating! $\endgroup$ – Michael Cromer Oct 26 '17 at 23:16

When taking a calculus course a few years back some of the students were deaf. At every lecture there were 2 translators. It seemed that some concepts like "The mean value theorem" were easy to translate, but others consisting of words rarely used in everyday speech demanded more effort. I might be wrong, but I think that it is possible to "type out" words if no better option is available.


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