Is there more than one sign language?

Recently, I’ve begun to explore a new research direction: signed languages. The University of Washington has an excellent American Sign Language program, including a minor, and I’ve been learning to sign and reading about linguistic research in ASL concurrently. I have to say, it’s probably my favourite language that I’ve studied so far. However, I’ve encountered two very prevalent misconceptions about signed languages when I chat with people about my studies, which are these:

  • Sign languages are basically iconic; you can figure out what’s being said without learning the language.
  • All sign languages are pretty much the same.

On the one hand, I can understand where these misconceptions spring from. On the other, they are absolutely false and I think it’s important that they’re cleared up.

Obama Madiba Memorial

You don’t want to end up like this guy. (No, no, not President Obama, fraudulent “sign language interpreter” Thamsanqa Jantjie.)

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between a visual language and gesture. A language, regardless of its modality (i.e. how it’s transmitted, whether it’s through compressed and rarefied particles or by light bouncing off of things) is arbitrary, abstract and has an internal grammar. Gesture, on the other hand, can be thought of the visual equivalent of non-linguistic vocalizations. Gestures and pantomime and more like squeals, screams, shrieks and raspberries than they are like telling a joke or giving someone directions. They don’t have a grammatical structure, they’re not arbitrary and you can, in fact, figure out what they mean without a whole lot of background information. That’s kind of the point, after all. And, yes, Deaf individuals will often use gesture, especially when communicating with non-signers. But this is distinct from signed language. Signed languages have all the same complexities and nuance of spoken languages, and you can no more understand them without training than you could wake up one morning suddenly speaking Kapampangan. Try to see how much of this ASL vlog entry you understand! (Subtitles not included.)

But that just shows that you signed languages are real languages that you really need to learn. (I’m looking at you Mr. Jantjie). What about the mutual intelligibly thing? Well, since we’ve already seen that signed languages are not iconic, this myth seems to be somewhat silly now. We might expect there to be some sort of pan-Deaf signing if there were constant and routine contact between Deaf communities in different countries. And, in fact, there is! Events such as meetings of the World Federation of the Deaf have fostered the creation of International Sign Language. It is, however, a constructed language that is rarely used outside of international gatherings. Instead, most signers tend to use the signed language is most popular in their home country, and these are vastly different.

For an example of the differences between sign languages, let’s look at the alphabet in two signed languages: American Sign Language and British Sign Language. These are both relatively mature sign languages which both exist as substrate languages in predominately English-speaking communities. (Substrate just means that it’s not the most socially-valued and widely-used language in a given community. In America, any language that’s not English is pretty much a substrate language, despite the fact that we don’t have a government-mandated official language.) So, if sign languages really are universal, we’d expect that these two communities would use basically the same signs. Instead, the two languages are completely unintelligible, as you can see below. (I picked these videos because for the first ten or so signs their pacing is close enough that you can play them simultaneously. You’re welcome. 🙂 )

The alphabet in British Sign Language:

The alphabet in American Sign Language:

As you can see, they’re completely different. Signed languages are a fascinating area of study, and a source of great pride and cultural richness in their respective Deaf communities. I highly recommend that you learn more about visual languages. Here are a couple resources to get you started.

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