A few weeks ago, when writing about the vocabulary that marked the coronavirus pandemic, I mentioned that the Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT) interpreter, Irma Sluis, shot to fame when she signed “hamsteren” or “stockpiling” during a corona press conference. Interpreters are generally supposed to be invisible, but in some cases they are not. Her facial expression and gesturing, which seemed emotive to the hearing community who are not familiar with sign languages, generated a buzz on social media where she was GIFFed.
Two days ago, as the Netherlands announced the extension of its anti-corona measures until 28 April, Irma Sluis was once again in the spotlight when the Minister of Health, Hugo de Jonge, turned playfully to see her interpret the same, now recognisable word.
It’s not the first time de Jonge has been featured in sign-language related news. Last year he tweeted about a video tour offered by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to speakers of NGT and he was filmed signing his coffee order in a Sign Language Coffee Bar.
The reactions to the sudden popularity of the GIF and the “hamsteren” sign have been mixed. (For a discussion on its reception, and some interesting examples, you can check out this Twitter thread by linguist and L2 signer Adam Schembri).
On the one hand, the sign seemed to capture vividly what people were actually said to be doing at the time, frantically buying groceries and supplies. And the GIF gave us a reason to smile amid all the grim news about the virus. Next to that, publicity may even raise awareness of sign languages and deaf communities everywhere. NGT (Nederlandse Gebarentaal or Sign Language of the Netherlands) is spoken by 15,000 people, and it was only last year that a bill of law initiative was proposed for its official recognition. It is one of approximately three hundred sign languages in use worldwide today.
On the other hand, some signers took offence to some of the reactions. The following meme at least covertly mocks the sign language, although it overtly points to Dutch pronunciation.
“She was trying to show how to pronounce the “g” in Dutch correctly”
This is not the first time the hearing mock sign languages for comedic effect. Chelsea Lately comedy show infamously aired a sketch in 2012 that showed an actress who “interpreted” the show’s host by using exaggerated facial expressions and miming invented signs. The actress was impersonating the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter Lydia Callis, who, similarly to Irma Sluis, briefly became famous while interpreting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Superstorm Sandy press conference. The Chelsea Lately producers received a letter from the US National Association of the Deaf (NAD), in which they rightfully explained that the sketch was offensive to their community.
We can’t control messages and people’s reactions and attitudes they have towards less familiar and minority languages. It’s worth pointing out, however, that our ideas of “normal” and “appropriately expressive” are very subjective. Sign languages, and linguistic diversity at large, are good reminders of how many different ways of seeing and experiencing the world there are.