Twenty Years Ago Today: Russian Sign Language Needs Some Work...

yazik_jestovTwenty years ago today, the demise of the decades-long Cold War was still making itself felt throughout the former Soviet Union. It wasn't long since President Yeltsin had ordered tanks to fire on the Russian parliament to silence a revolt against him. People still feared that communists could seize control in a coup and unleash nuclear weapons at any moment, and the US was throwing money at Ukraine just so they would give up the nukes they'd inherited from the Soviet Union (something they may have come to regret since then, I'm afraid to say). But was anyone paying attention to the changes that were affecting Russian Sign Language? No. Not unless they were Russian, deaf, and worried about how people might see them.

Every country has its own version of sign language, which often has little relation to the grammar of the language of that country, and which nevertheless suffers from all the variations of dialect and general confusion that spoken languages have to face. In the case of Russian Sign Language, it still had to deal with a legacy of seventy years of communism, which brought with it a worrisome series of entrenched attitudes, reflected in the signs for various concepts.

So: if you wanted to sign the word 'capitalist', you stuck out your belly and rubbed your right hand against the bulge - to say that capitalists were fat pigs. If you wanted to sign the word 'market', you made an anarchic jiggle of the hand if you wanted to hold true to the old communist signing system. If you wanted to reflect the new reality of Russia, you twisted a thumb and finger against your temple and rolled your eyes as if to say that the prices were so high, they were insane. Satire was clearly alive and well in the newly-capitalist Russian Federation.

Less comedic attitudes were also still in evidence, including racial stereotypes. East Asians were still indicated by slanty eyes, while Georgians were expressed as a cartridge holder, as if to imply the rebellious nature of that particular ex-Soviet republic.

But the things that could get you in the most trouble were all the signs for prominent politicians. You could always spell a name letter by letter to be safe, although this takes rather more time and is inconvenient. Or you could use the more conventional system and give a single sign for a person. Stalin, for example, was signed as 'Steel', a literal translation of his name. Yeltsin, though, was rendered as a fist twisted against the nose to indicate that he was permanently drunk. It may have been accurate, but it wasn't always appreciated. The official sign language interpreters for television were doing their best to be even handed in all things - for example, the events of October 3-4, 1993, in which Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on the Russian parliament buildings, were simply rendered as 'October 3-4'. It was safer that way, and offered no judgement as to the correctness of either side.

These days, sign language in the Russian Federation isn't as well recognised as it could be, and still suffers from lagging behind spoken Russian with regards to modern terms and phrases. Dmitri Medvedev spoke on the problem in 2009 and agreed that more work needed to be done; with the full official recognition of the current language in 2013, one can only hope that some headway is being made.

(Although if you're an RSL user and want to correct me on any of this, please do! I'm just going from newspaper reports and translated websites, after all...)

Here's the first video in an intro to Russian Sign Language if you want to learn. And yep, this means you have to get the hang of Cyrillic letters as well. Such is life.