Deaf hear Russia like it really is: Sign language moves with times

IMAGINE yourself pregnant or very plump. Stick out your belly. Rub your right hand across the bulge. Smile smugly. Keep stroking your stomach.

You have just spoken Russian sign language. And what you said was 'Kapitalist'. What you meant, though, was: 'Fat capitalist pig. Roll on the Revolution.'

The gesture is not supposed to be an insult. Not anymore. It can be seen most days on Russian television, when a woman appears at the bottom of the screen to translate into sign language what biznesmeny are up to, and other news from the wild frontiers of reform.

In the United States, sign language has become a battleground for the politically correct: out go the limp wrist for a homosexual and the elongated eye for Japanese. Russian sign language, however, revels in giving offence - in saying what most people really think.

Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed perestroika, Russia has swirled with alien phrases, nostrums and fads. But one zone of tranquillity survives: the soundless lexicon of sign language.

'When the system changes, so must our signs,' says Ludmilla Osgorkhina, director of the Study and Methods Centre of the All-Russia Deaf Society. 'But every sign must have a distinguishing characteristic, and we can't decide yet what distinguishes this new system.'

Nor can anyone else. If anything, Russia's real-life Kapitalists are uglier than their communist-era caricature. It will be many years before Russia's deaf stop patting pot bellies.

Nor are they rushing to change the sign for 'market': an anarchic, jagged jiggle of the hand - a pejorative relic of Communist disdain. The deaf, however, have developed a sign for the new profit-making stores: they twist a thumb and finger against the temple and roll their eyes. 'Prices are so high, they are mad,' explains Galena Zaitseva, author of the standard text book on Russian sign language.

As many new words and meanings also enter spoken Russian, a team of eight sign- language 'translators' at the Ostankino television centre, scene of the gun battle last October, struggle to keep up. Their leader, Yelena Ilyina, keeps a clipboard bearing a lengthening list of new words and the correct signs. One entry in vogue among television news script-writers for the deaf is the 'sword of Damocles': a sign for danger above the head; and shock therapy is a startling pat on the chest followed by the sign for medical treatment.

Proper names are potentially treacherous for the television presenters. The slang sign for Boris Yeltsin is a fist twisted on the nose to indicate sozzled, while the national drunk gesture is a finger flick on the neck. Karl Marx is a bushy beard traced with the hand, Lenin a pinch on the chin for a goatee, Brezhnev a tap above the eyes for bushy eyebrows. Only Stalin escapes mockery: his sign is a literaltranslation of his adopted name, Russian for steel.

To avoid implying that their president is a drunkard, the television translators use 'finger spelling', a system of manual phonetics, to 'spell' rather than 'translate' politically dangerous words. And so Mikhail Gorbachev can be spared reference to his birthmark: the standard sign for him is a tap on the forehead.

Racial stereotypes still abound. Asians are designated with variations on the same theme of slanty eyes; Georgians are 'signed' by a cartridge holder. But so far only Armenians have complained: their sign, a sprinkling spice, has been reformed to show snow falling on Mount Ararat.

The recent political crises have been particularly stressful, and the bloody drama of last autumn is still too ambiguous for sign language. It is referred to by finger-spelling the date October 3-4. 'This is enough,' says Tatyana Kotelskaya. 'No other sign is necessary.' In other words, neither Mr Yeltsin nor the foes he bombarded with tanks was right. Again Russia's deaf speak most eloquently for the public's real mood.

'You can't force language. Life has to change first,' says Ms Zaitseva. She calculates that it takes a century for a 10 per cent shift of vocabulary. 'It is very hard to change the way people speak. It is harder still to change how they sign. It means changing what they think.'