How Deaf People Come Up With Signs for Slang Terms Like “Photobomb”

New technology always introduces linguistic challenges. In the early days of moviemaking, it wasn’t clear what these new entertainments should be called. Kinesigraphs (after photograph)? Films? Moving pictures? Motion pictures? Picture shows? Movies? It is possible to imagine a new concept in different ways. Do you name it for the thing that distinguishes it from what came before? (It’s a picture—but it moves!) Or for the medium it’s printed on? (Film, itself an extension of the “thin layer” image.) It will take some time for people to converge on a favorite, sometimes a few generations.

The process is no different for the coinage of new terms in ASL. When a new idea comes into the culture, signers can borrow from English (through fingerspelling), modify an existing sign, or come up with something new through a reimagining of the concept. For example, here are two different possible signs for photobomb:

The one on the left conceptualizes it from the point of view of the picture-taker—someone pops into the picture I am taking. The one on the right conceptualizes it from the point of view of the person having their picture taken—someone barges in while I’m being photographed.

This gif comes from a story at Hopes&Fears that asked a pair of Deaf signers, Douglas Ridloff, an ASL artist, performer, and educator, and one of his students, 12-year-old Tully Stelzer, to give their signs for new terms.

For the term onesie, Ridloff gives the sign form “pajamas,” while Stelzer uses the concept of putting something over the body in one big piece.

If these concepts stick around long enough in the culture for the community to discuss them frequently, eventually the community will settle on a stable sign. Already Ridloff reports that people in the Deaf community don’t like his “photobomb” sign because they find it awkward. If we are still talking about photobombs a generation from now, only then will we see what the proper dictionary sign turns out to be. It may well turn out to be Stelzer’s. In any language, change tends to be driven by the younger generation. Who says “moving picture” any more?

See signs for “emoji,” “food coma,” “selfie,” and others, and read a Q&A with Ridloff and Tully about their signs at Hopes&Fears.

Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters

According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

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