Tag Archives: Sign Language

Don’t speak English? Doesn’t matter if you use baseball’s sign language

Here’s a guest podcast from my Big Show colleague Nina Porzucki

He may not speak English fluently, but Koji Uehara doesn’t need English to be fluent in the language of baseball.

It’s as easy as: A, B, C. Or, rather make that: one, two, three.

“One finger is a fast ball; sometimes that index finger’ll get swirled, that’ll mean a two seam fastball; sometimes there’ll be a sharp knifing motion, that means cut fastball. Then there’s two fingers, usely a curveball or breaking ball, three fingers means…” said Dirk Hayburst, a retired Major League Baseball pitcher who is fluent in the language of baseball.

Hayburst can go on and on. Maybe it’s not so easy after all.

All those swirling fingers and knifing motions are the way catchers speak to him. In fact, Hayhurst pitched many, many games in the minor leagues to a catcher who hardly spoke a word of English.

“We just broke camp from spring training and we’re driving the team bus and he’s sitting on the bus reading a book called English for Dummies,” Hayhurst recalled.

On the field, though, he was certainly no dummy.

“You spend one week throwing to this guy and he knows what to do,” Hayhurst said.

A pitcher and catcher learn from one another just by flashing a series of ones, twos and threes. But it goes beyond mere hand gestures, says Hayhurst. Speaking the language of baseball also means knowing the unwritten rules of the game. Rule number one: you don’t peek. That means the batter can never look back at the catcher to look at signs.

But if a batter did steal the signs — when Hayhurst was pitching to his Spanish-speaking catcher, language wasn’t an issue.

“My catcher, who doesn’t speak a lick of English outside of these baseball rules, said, ‘He peeking! He peeking!’ And my next pitch was high and tight and I put this guy in his place,” Hayhurst says. “I don’t think he read that in the English for Dummies book.”

When you want to nail someone, Hayhurst says, the sign is an over-turned palm with the thumb gesturing angrily.

So what are the origins of the baseball signs?

“The basis for signs and signals and sign-stealing pretty much go back to the American Civil War,” said Paul Dickson, author of The Hidden Language of Baseball.

Baseball was played before the Civil War, but coded hand signals became a common tool for soldiers on the battlefield trying to communicate with one another. Coded signs and signals were used by both the Confederate and Union armies. After the war, those coded signs were carried from the battlefield to the ballfield. The jump from soldiers in battle to men on a field isn’t a hard leap to make, says Dickson.

“The manager, who is the field general, is in uniform and he’s directing, the first and third base coach are the first lieutenants, the catcher is the sargeant directing the men in the field [and] the pitcher and catcher are the battery,” Dickson said.

Signs were not only meant to communicate with allies but to confuse the enemy who was actively trying to break the code. Just as the unwritten peeking rule is universa,l so it seems is the act of decoding the opposing team’s signs. And throwing “deeks,” or decoy signs — that’s part of the game, too.

“You have to disguise your signs. You’ve got your poker face out there in front of the world,” said Joe Vavra, a third base coach for the Minnesota Twins

Vavra has a pretty good poker face, and a good memory. While he’s throwing out deeks, he also has to remember the real signs for each player on the team as well as teach them the signs.

“We’ll go over them, we’ll go over them, we’ll go over them,” Vavra said.

As for teaching the players who don’t speak English. Who needs it? Vavra just mimes the movements for the players who aren’t completely comfortable in English.

“I can show them the actions and they understand,” Vavra said.

Still not every play in baseball can be reduced to a tap on the forehead or a brush of the arm. Language is sometimes necessary, like during a mound visit when players and the coach come together to discuss strategy. What happens when everyone speaks a different language? Hayhurst says yes, sometimes, you just have to bring the interpreter to the mound. But even then the situation is not quite clearcut.

“The interpreter will speak and the shortstop will try to reinterate what the interpreter is trying to reiterate from the coach to the second baseman who speaks really only fluent Japanese,” Hayhurst said. “And the funny thing is, is whether the Japanese second baseman understands or not, he will be bowing his head over and over again, which confuses the American coach because that’s a sign that [the Japanese player] understands.”

But the Japanese player may just be bowing his head as a sign of respect toward the coach.

“So it can be a recipe for disaster, it really can,” Hayhurst said.

Still, oddly enough, he says more often than not miscommunication has nothing to do with a player’s native tongue. In fact, according to Hayhurst, when two players do not speak the same native language they can actually be more attentive and careful when reading the signs.

“I’ve seen guys mess up signs who speak the same language way more than I see problems with guys who grew up 3,000 miles away from each other,” Hayhurst said.

So this weekend, when you’re watching the series, be on the lookout for the verbal and the nonverbal signs. There’s a whole lot language going on.

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Genders, geniuses, and Tamil onomatopoeia

Another top five language stories. In no particular order:

5. A new line of Tamil pulp fiction translated into English keeps the magnificent onomatopoeia of the original. The brilliant people behind this are Chennai-based  Blaft Publications. They have plans for more pulp fiction to be translated from other Indian languages. Blaft sums up its first Tamil anthology this way:  Guns, cleavage, and mallipoo! And the untranslated Tamil onomatopoeia? Listen out in the pod for words like visshkda-nang, pulich and labak. One of those, by the way — guess which — mimics the sound of spit landing on a wall.

4. New research shows that no matter you much some Germans have tried, they can’t make their language gender-neutral. A doctor or a teacher in German — as in many languages — is nearly always specified as male or female. Over the decades, feminist publications in particular have tried to tinker with some of the assignations, or at least neutralize the gender specificity. But according to Swedish researcher Magnus Pettersson, they have failed.  This comes off the back of Guy Deutscher’s take on whether noun genders in the likes of German and Spanish affect how we think of the objects in questions. (eg bridge is feminine in German, masculine in Spanish; Deutscher, as a native Hebrew speaker, always thinks of a bed as feminine). I wonder if linguists, or neurologists or sociologists, have considered not how we think of those objects, but how the gender designations of those objects may influence how we think of men and women (He bridges problems; she is as soft as a bed etc).

3. A new-ish Belgian video pokes fun at the country’s linguistic battles. We poke fun at The Big Show’s beer-loving Clark Boyd, who just happens to be our correspondent in beer-loving  Brussels.

2. We hear more about two linguists who have won 2010 MacArthur genius awards: Wampanoag revivalist Jessie Little Doe Baird, who acted on a dream, studied linguistics, co-edited a dictionary and is raising her daughter to speak the extinct Wampanoag language;  and sign language researcher extraordinaire Carol Paddon.

1. Carol Hill’s adventures in Sweden. She was at the 2010 Göteborg Book Fair. She struggled with Swedish. She interviewed dozens of African writers,  who also didn’t understand Swedish but appeared to speak just about every other language on Earth.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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Spy accents, sign language, and not my bad.

Our top five language stories this month:

5. Making Tamil even more official. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Tamil is an official language. It’s widely spoken there. Indeed it was the very first of India’s languages to be recognized as a classical language. But proponents of the language, and of the Tamil people, don’t think that Tamil gets the respect it deserves. So they have enlisted Tamil politicians to  issue an order requiring that commercial signs prominently display the language. Most signs are in English.  Opponents worry that Tamil Nadu is needlessly cutting itself from the rest of the world, and from possible trade opportunities.

4. The expression that Manute Bol didn’t invent. After Sudanese basketball great Manute Bol died, many eulogies praised him for, among other things, coining the term my bad. Speaking on the Senate floor U.S. Senator Sam Brownback lauded Manute Bol for that (as well as for his basketball skills, and for killing a lion with a spear while working as a cow-herder). The source for the my bad coinage claim was a five-year-old post in the blog Language Log. The belief apparently was that as a non-native English speaker, he thought he was saying my fault. As posters on Language Log have recently pointed out, my bad was almost definitely around before Manute Bol first arrived in the United States in about 1980. So Manute:  sorry. Our bad.

3.  A translator recalls the Nuremberg Trials. Ingeborg Laurensen, 96, recalls her work as one of 24 interpreters at the international military tribunal after World War Two.

2.Those (alleged) Russian spies and their faux Euro/Canadian accents. One of them claimed a she was Belgian; another that she was Canadian; yet another had “the faintest hint” of “an accent”.   OK, so their covers were blown, but it wasn’t because their accents didn’t match (what’s a Belgian accent anyway? ).  Let’s face it, most of us are pretty inept when it comes to pinpointing an accent. In the pod, we get a crash course on the difference between the French spoken in France and the French of Quebec.

1. A sign language that doesn’t have signs for some Islamic words. American Sign Language doesn’t have signs for Mecca, Mohammed and other words common to Muslims. In Toronto, an ASL teacher is working with group of students from a diversity of linguistic backgrounds (Pakistani Sign Language, Arabic Sign Language and Turkish Sign Language)  to try to come up with signs for a few religious words.  In the pod, we also discuss new research into Nicaraguan Sign Language that shows that language may affect how we solve spatial problems.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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