Learn to Say Astronomy, Constellation, Solar Eclipse, and More in Sign Languages

"Astronomy" in 22 different sign languages. IAU-C1 WG3 and collaborators

It's a lot harder to reach for the stars—and everything else in space—when you have to spell out by hand their names and all the technical terms related to them. That's why the International Astronomical Union, a network of more than 12,000 astronomers from around the globe, has been working to create dictionaries of astronomy-related signs for the languages used by deaf communities.

The result is a priority list of 47 key astronomical terms they are gathering sign language translations for from 31 languages. Those include words like asteroids, satellite and zenith, as well as the names of planets and the Milky Way. The publicly accessible spreadsheet the project is currently based on includes images or video links demonstrating signs. The alternative is using the language's alphabet to spell out each term as it would be written (many of the videos demonstrate this format as well).

"Imagine fingerspelling out 'electromagnetic spectrum,'" Kate Meredith, Director of Education Outreach at Yerkes Observatory in Chicago who works on projects making astronomy more accessible to underserved communities but isn't directly involved in the IAU project, told Newsweek. "There's a lot of benefit in shortening it up and coming up with a term."

She'd like to see that happen as organically as possible, but that can be challenging in specialized fields like astronomy. "There's very few deaf astronomy role models," Meredith said. There also aren't very many astronomy courses at deaf universities. "Many students are not exposed, they don't have that incidental learning in astronomy."

To try to counter that, Meredith said, Yerkes Observatory creates course material and holds classes about astronomy, and she's seen this organic process of sign development take place there. "You're spelling all this out and it's very laborious," she said, discussing explaining different galaxy structures and how we see them through space. After months of spelling out 'galaxy,' she said, "a sign emerged," and the students naturally began to adapt it and use it to describe subsets of galaxies and their characteristics. "All of a sudden, magically, I understood what it meant for this to be a language of its own."

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The IAU project is a spin-off of a 200-page astronomy encyclopedia for French Sign Language published in 2009. Inspired by that project, the IAU's working group on equity and inclusion decided to work on gathering, establishing and publicizing signs for astronomical terms.

"We definitely applaud the project," Meredith said. She added that people in the deaf community may have questions about precisely how the project is playing out, but adds that she welcomes that kind of feedback to her own projects. "I wouldn't even care if people were annoyed, because that means we're looking at the issue."

She adds that astronomy is a perfect field to focus on making more accessible because about 90 percent of the information we gather about our universe is totally invisible anyway. "Really, all that data is just numbers on a spreadsheet," Meredith said. "Our question is, 'What can we do with that?.'"