Gestures of death

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Shaun King, "North Carolina police kill unarmed deaf man using sign language", New York Daily News 8/22/2016:

This is as bad as it gets.

A North Carolina state trooper shot and killed 29-year-old Daniel Harris — who was not only unarmed, but deaf — just feet from his home, over a speeding violation. According to early reports from neighbors who witnessed the shooting this past Thursday night, Harris was shot and killed "almost immediately" after exiting his vehicle.

He appeared to be trying to communicate with the officer via sign language.


Local news coverage is here (warning: autoplay).

Update — after looking at more than 200 examples of the form VERB NOUNPHRASE1 using NOUNPHRASE2, I could find only a handful where the using-phrase is a modifier of NOUNPHRASE1, or part of an untensed clause [NOUNPHRASE1 using NOUNPHRASE2], rather than an instrumental adjunct modifying the VERB:

… turning his back to avoid a septuagenarian using an aluminum walker …
… you need a tablet using an x86-based processor …
… he overheard his father using those words once …

So the crash blossom misparsing is overwhelmingly the stochastic-parsing choice, never mind what makes sense.

Update #2 — The described event is horrific, and underlines what seems to be a serious problem with the training, attitudes and behavior of police forces in the U.S. I apologize for seemed to trivialize the incident by focusing on the parsing of a misleading headline.



  1. Theophylact said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 9:07 am

    Failure to understand English can be as life-threatening as deafness.

  2. Irina said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 9:17 am

    It took me a while to stop reading that as "police kill man with sign language as the weapon".

  3. neminem said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 9:22 am

    Yep: I also came in here to ask how exactly the police managed to kill someone by signing at them – whether they convinced the person to do something dangerous, or if maybe they were just wizards?

  4. Charles Antaki said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    More in sorrow … Department. I turned to this post ready to read more about such a horrible event – a killing all of us would feel was awful, and is obviously of interest to especially us as language folk. I was disappointed to see that its ghastliness was left unremarked (though I have no doubt that Mark Liberman thinks it is ghastly) and that it was treated it as the stimulus for grammatical wrangling, rather than an exploration of (say) universal emergency signs, or how otherwise to protect oneself when linguistically impaired. I love a good wrangle too, but I wonder here whether this was quite a fit topic.
    End of pious post.

  5. Martha said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 10:13 am

    I didn't notice a possible misinterpretation until I got to end of the post. Probably because I had the same expectation as Charles Antaki, I was confused about what the post was even about until that last sentence! (Though I probably could have been paying closer attention to what I was reading; breakfast, however, was my priority.)

    Charles, when I first heard this story on the news last night, I thought of this video made by Marlee Matlin and the ACLU. You might find it interesting:

  6. J. Goard said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 10:18 am

    I almost always use "speak" with sign languages, and get pissed off at people who attempt to correct me. How is it any different from "turning" the channel with a remote control?

    Journalists, though…

  7. Sarah Fish said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 12:45 pm

    I left the comment below on the FB post about this item, but thought I would post it here as well. In short, I agree with Charles and Martha above:

    "I am subscribed to LL via my reader, but this post hit my FB feed first (or rather, I saw it here first). Seeing that the "haha" emoji was selected here, I was confused as to why a post about this event could be viewed as humorous.

    Being a member of the Deaf community and a sign language linguist, the news of this event has been all over my feed, but for other reasons: one, the tragic and unnecessary loss of yet another life at the hands of police; two, the loss of someone from our community for what at this point appears to be a benign reason (speaking another language); and three, the use of dispreferred and offensive terms describing Mr. Harris in articles and posts, as authors (including Mr. King) used "hearing impaired" and "deaf mute" instead of "Deaf" (and Mr. Harris was a member of the Deaf community). Many of the authors of these articles and posts were completely resistant to using the preferred terminology of the group they were talking about, even when Deaf people themselves told them. Mr. King was the most public (and possibly only) one to acknowledge this feedback and change his terminology. With much respect, while I understand why the crash blossom is of linguistic interest, it just feels like maybe the wrong thing to focus on about this event, particularly when there are other aspects that are relevant to linguists and given that it is a really recent tragic event that is impacting not only members of the Deaf community but members of the linguistics community."

  8. Rodger C said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 2:07 pm

    @J. Goard: Or "dialing" a phone with a keyboard. When numerical keys were new, phone companies used to say thing like, "Please touch 911," but I think the usage died of its own oddness.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 3:55 pm

    It's not hard with a little googling to find similar constructions in non-fatal police encounters, e.g.:

    "El Paso Co. deputies search for man using counterfeit bills"

    "Video shows Seattle cop arresting elderly black man using golf club"

  10. Michael Watts said,

    August 23, 2016 @ 11:27 pm

    I almost always use "speak" with sign languages, and get pissed off at people who attempt to correct me. How is it any different from "turning" the channel with a remote control?

    While I agree that "speak" is the verb for using languages, I feel compelled to note that "speaking" sign language is different from "turning" the channel with a remote control in that channels are "changed", not "turned". :p

  11. Faldone said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 9:52 am

    Once again something I would classify as willful misunderstanding. I don't think I would have even considered the reading involving the police using sign language to kill a deaf man if this hed hadn't been presented as a case where this misunderstanding was offered.

  12. Sarah Fish said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 12:01 pm

    Thank you so much for posting the second update. It is much appreciated.

  13. Charles Antaki said,

    August 25, 2016 @ 4:37 pm

    I echo Sarah Fish's appreciation. Well said, Mark (if I may).
    And thank you Martha for the link to Marlee Matlin's instructive video.

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