ann21024 — Announcement

Training teachers speaking with hands: astronomical terms in sign language during the first Inspiring Stars workshop
14 April 2021
Second International Comparative List of Astronomical Terms in Sign Languages

In December 2017 the IAU published the first international comparative list of astronomical terms in sign languages. Now the second international comparative list of astronomical terms in sign languages has been published, with signs for 86 new terms, including neutron stars, gravitational waves and the expansion of the Universe. These new terms were selected by experts as the most commonly used in astronomy education and outreach, with a special emphasis on the communication of astronomy to the public. Signs for each term are given in several different sign languages, including English, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese and Polish.

The publication of this second list is part of a long-term project of the IAU Executive Committee Working Group on Astronomy for Equity and Inclusion, in collaboration with many individuals and organisations [1]. As with the first list, signs in some of the languages have been retrieved from the Spread the Sign project. The main goal of the project is to make astronomy more widely accessible, in alignment with the IAU Springboard to Action document that was adopted by the IAU early this year, as a step towards removing structural barriers that people with disabilities face. The project also aims to stimulate reflection on the differences between various languages, to help communities develop their own signs for particular astronomical terms that they don’t already have signs for, and to promote discussion in deaf communities about the wonders of astronomy.

A series of meetings with deaf communities are being started, in order to improve communication between astronomers with and without this disability, as well as with the general public. New initiatives are being developed with associations,  museums and planetariums, such as the Confederación Argentina de Sordos and the Planetario Galileo Galilei, Buenos Aires, Argentina, where a special performance and conference will be held on the occasion of this release.

Sign language is now officially practised in almost every country, but diverse heritages and different cultures have independently developed specific signs to designate common objects or identical situations. “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”, says Dominique Proust, who directed the publication in 2009 of Hands in the Stars, an encyclopedic dictionary of astronomy for French Sign Language, which inspired the first list published by the IAU in 2017 [2]. An ongoing study of the signs aims to determine the similarities and differences between different languages, and the possibility that some words might have both a common sign and a unique sign in each language is currently under discussion [3].

The experts who have compiled this second list have decided to dedicate it to the two eminent astronomers Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941) and Henrietta Leavitt (1868–1921), both of whom were deaf. Cannon and Leavitt are famous for their research on stellar classification and Cepheid variables respectively. They worked together at Harvard College with a group of outstanding women at the beginning of the 20th century. Although women were not allowed to operate a telescope at this time, Cannon and Leavitt had access to data that allowed them to make several important discoveries. They are an inspiration to people with and without disabilities alike, for having overcome so many obstacles to become highly influential astronomers.

More information

The IAU is the international astronomical organisation that brings together almost 12 000 active professional astronomers from more than 100 countries worldwide. Its mission is to promote and safeguard astronomy in all its aspects, including research, communication, education and development, through international cooperation. The IAU also serves as the internationally recognised authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies and the surface features on them. Founded in 1919, the IAU is the world's largest professional body for astronomers.


[1] The collaborators in the project are listed here.

[2] In France, the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Astronomy for the French Sign Language was published in 2009 under the direction of Dominique Proust, in collaboration with Daniel Abbou, Nasro Chab, Yves Delaporte, Carole Marion and Blandine Proust, in Burillier, in the framework of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) and with the support of the Paris Observatory.

[3] Sign language has its own vocabulary and grammar and is expressed in all communication aspects. Large numbers have their own signs, as do operators. All mathematical and geometrical terms are represented by explicit signs. Physics and chemistry include a set of signs and symbols for each domain. The physical constants are designated by the same symbols as in the hearing world.



Beatriz Garcia 

Amelia Ortiz 

Dominique Proust 

Lars Lindberg Christensen
IAU Press Officer
Cell: +49 173 38 72 621

About the Announcement



Training teachers speaking with hands: astronomical terms in sign language during the first Inspiring Stars workshop