The scan above is from Sarah Franklin’s excellent 2007 book, Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy.
I don’t know if her interpretation of the ASL sign for “sheep” makes sense to people who speak ASL (I have to assume she checked!) but I’m completely fascinated by the idea that it performs a hybrid: simultaneously human (the shearer), animal (the sheep) and technological (the shears).
So I decided to check if all English sign languages are the same and, as with all interesting research, found that I now have more questions than answers.
For example, the sign for “sheep” is the same in British Sign Language, Auslan and NZ Sign Language – it involves using the fingers to indicate curly horns on the sides of the head, like a ram – and is used to refer to both a wool-producing animal (sheep) and its meat (lamb/mutton).
First, I find it interesting that the sign performs the appearance of a ram and not a ewe, although they certainly are more visually distinctive. Are all animal signs based on appearance rather than behaviour, use, etc.?
Second, I have no idea why it is completely different from ASL for “sheep” — giving no indication of how people interact with the animal — but since all three sign languages also have separate signs for shearing/shearer, one possibility that comes to mind is that sheep in the UK, Australia and NZ are more “multi-purpose” animals and shearing is considered a culturally distinct activity and identity.
Third, Auslan has two additional signs for sheep, one regionally-specific, and NZSL has another two for lamb as well, although it is unclear if they’re referring to the animal or the meat. In any case, does this more extensive vocabulary indicate greater cultural significance?
Fourth, I was enjoying the (rather wishful) thought that one of the NZSL signs for lamb might be performing their notoriously cute “sproinging” action, but then I found out it’s very similar to the Auslan sign for “woolen” and wondered why would a lamb be more closely associated with wool than with meat?
Okay, okay. It’s clearly time to stop speculating and speak with the experts! I’ll update this with what I learn.