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Sign language

A sign language is a language which uses gestures, motion and expression instead of sound to convey meaning: combinations of handshapes, movements of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions. Sign languages are used by people who are deaf or hearing-impaired. Contrary to popular belief, sign language is not international. Wherever communities of deaf people exist, sign languages develop. As with spoken languages, these vary from country to country. They are not based on the spoken language in the country of origin. And like spoken languages, they developed in antiquity: sign languages are not new, and are no more or less amendable than any spoken language.

Sign language can also be used in other contexts, where normal speech cannot be used. American Indians were known to use a signed pidgin to facilitate communication among tribes who used different spoken languages, and people in situations where silence is desirable (such as military operations) or where speech is impossible (for example when scuba diving) often employ some form of sign to communicate. It should be emphasised that the last two examples are not sign languages but a form of signal communication.

Table of contents
1 Linguistics of Sign
2 History
3 Examples
4 External Links

Linguistics of Sign

In linguistic terms, sign languages can be as rich and complex as any spoken languages, despite the common misconception that they are not "real languages"

Professional linguists have studied many sign languages and found them to have every linguistic component required to be classed as a true language.

Sign languages are not simple pantomime, and they are not a visual rendition of a simplified version of any spoken language.

They have rich, complex grammars and, like every other language used by people, they can be used to discuss any topic, from the simple and concrete to the lofty and abstract.

Another misconception commonly held is that sign languages are dependent in some way on spoken languages, e.g. they are merely the spelling out of the words of a spoken language using gestural symbols.

Although fingerspelling is used in sign languages, mostly for proper names, it is merely one tool among many. To say that sign language is not a true language because it uses fingerspelling for some things is akin to saying that English is not a true language because it contains onomatopoeic words.

On the whole, sign languages are independent of spoken languages and they follow their own developmental paths. For example, British Sign Language and American Sign Language are different and mutually unintelligible, even though the hearing people of British and America share the same spoken language.

In addition, countries which have a single spoken language used throughout may have two or more signed languages being used within. Conversely, an area that contains more than one native spoken language might use the same signed language, such as the case in Canada, the United States, and Mexico; all three use American Sign Language while there are native speakers of English, French and Spanish within their borders.

Further proof of the separation of sign languages from spoken ones is the fact that sign languages exploit the unique features of the visual medium. Spoken language is aural and therefore linear, as only one sound can be made or received at a time whereas sign language is visual, hence, a whole scene can be taken in at once. Therefore, information can be loaded into many 'channels' and expressed simultaneously.

As an illustration, one could sign a sentence in a sign language that most literally translated would mean, "I drove here" but, by taking advantage of the visual mode of communication, information about the subject, object, verb and countless ancillary and descriptive details can be packed in by altering the movement, location, speed of execution, and handshapes used in the signs and classifiers of the sentence, however it may be signed differently in different sign languages. All this is in addition to the grammatical, contextual and substantive information that is carried on the facial expressions incorporated, thus producing what could be honestly and accurately translated as: "As I drove here, the ride was pleasant at first, but soon, it became treacherous, for the road up the mountain was inordinately steep and circuitous with many holes and so I am mightily relieved to have finally made it."

One other way sign language differs from spoken is its ability to be written. It would be a mistake however, to assume that sign languages are the only languages that have no written version. Sign languages are not often written; most deaf people who use sign language read and write the spoken language of their country. However, there have been attempts at developing systems for recording sign language. Most of these have been academic attempts at transcription, which often suffer from being unable to capture all the physical features (especially the non-manual and positional ones) used by sign language. As a result they have not been used outside research. The only sign language writing system which has been actually used by deaf people to write, is Sign Writing, which rather than being developed by a linguist was devised by a dancer.

In principle, one could state that each spoken language has a sign language counterpart inasmuch as each linguistic population will contain Deaf members who will generate a sign language. Variations within a 'national' Sign Language can usually be correlated to the geographic location of (residential) schools for the Deaf.

Certain sign languages are developed within a family. For instance, when parents are hearing and have no training in a sign language and a child is deaf, an informal system of signs will be developed by which they communicate. The term for these mini-languages is kitchen sign.


Modern sign languages trace their roots to work done by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet in France. Gallaudet University in Washington, DC in the United States, a university dedicated to teaching the Deaf, was named after him. He is the reason that the grammar of American Sign Language, for one, is said to resemble the grammar of French. He himself was hearing, but became interested in deafness after meeting Alice Cogswell, a deaf child with no language.

There was an ideological conflict between Gallaudet and the American researcher, Alexander Graham Bell. Bell believed that the best way to teach deaf children was to teach them English and teach them to read lips. Gallaudet believed that it would be better to teach deaf children a language that they could fully participate in, one that could be their own.

This debate still rages today. Advocates of the "oral deaf" schools, who follow Bell, point to increased economic opportunities for children who learn lip reading and their better integration into the "dominant" culture. Advocates of sign language teaching counter that these children have no "native" language and posit that this subtly changes, for the worse, their learning and cognitive development. They also argue that the "Deaf-with-a-capital-D" deaf culture has a right to exist, to not be absorbed within the larger culture around it.


Contemporary Local Sign Languages

Contemporary Pan-National Sign Languages

Purpose-Specific Sign Languages

Archaic Sign Languages

There are also a large number of less formally organised but still widely understood gesticulations and mimes.

These range from expressing universal needs such as pointing to the mouth or rubbing the stomach to indicate a desire for food, to more insulting gestures such as the one-finger salute. It should be noted that not only do these not form a coherent language but their meaning may vary from culture to culture.

External Links