Deaf astronomers finally have a multilingual dictionary for space terms

14 Dec 2017

The Swedish-ESO Submillimetre Telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. Image: Y Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

Deaf astronomers around the world are jubilant as the publication of a multilingual dictionary for astronomical terms is announced.

While not the first dictionary of astronomical terms for deaf people, the latest encyclopaedia published by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) offers some much needed international translations of some of the most commonly used astronomical terms.

The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Astronomy for Sign Languages was compiled as part of a long-term project to collect the different signs in several languages, starting with a selection of 47 words that the experts of the IAU commission agreed were among the most commonly used in astronomy education and outreach.

These languages included German, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese and Polish, among others.

The new list has been published online and includes several classical celestial bodies such as planets, asteroids, galaxies and quasars as well as some more technical terms, including nadir and globular cluster.

While its initial purpose is to engage the deaf community in scientific discussion, the project will remain ongoing to increase the amount of terms and bring it to parity with the rest of the astronomical community.

Astronomy in sign language

The word ‘astronomy’ as it is represented in sign language in different countries. Image: IAU-C1 WG3 and collaborators

An ongoing project

Speaking of the new dictionary, French astrophysicist Dominique Proust said: “A universal sign language is gradually being developed, mainly to designate objects and situations related to contemporary technology or events.

“Nevertheless, there will always be differences between signs in each country that need to be noted, as countries have developed [their] own signs through time.”

The group working on the ongoing project is also analysing cases of words without a sign in some countries. One alternative could be to suggest the use of the sign of a closely related language – for example, Spanish for the Italian community.

Proust helped to compile the first great dictionary of astronomy for deaf people, Hands in the Stars, for the French sign language community. Containing approximately 300 different signs, the book was eventually translated into English and Spanish, and is also available for astronomers online.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic