Let’s take a trip around the world by exploring sign language and its history.
What is sign language?
Sign language is a visual means of communication that involves gestures, hand signals, body language and facial expressions. All these are employed in place of spoken words. Sign language is a lot more than hand signals, shapes and movements. Shoulder movements, lip patterns and facial expressions play an equally important role too.
Sign language is the chief form of communication for the deaf or hard-of-hearing community. But this doesn’t mean they are the only people using sign language. People with disabilities such as apraxia of speech, autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, to name a few, also employ sign language. And able people too use it at some point in their lives, such as to communicate with someone whose native language is different from theirs. In short, sign language is employed whenever spoken communication is impossible or undesirable.
Sign language is older than speech. It can be as coarsely expressed as mere pointing, shrugs or grimaces, or it may use a nuanced combination of coded manual signals aided by facial expressions. Sometimes it may be amplified by words spelt out in a manual alphabet. Sign language bridges the gap between individuals with different mother tongues or when any of the communicators is deaf.
Many sign languages were born independently across the world and no sign language can be identified as the first one. Both manual alphabets and signed systems have been found worldwide. Although most of the recorded instances of sign languages seem to have happened in Europe in the 17th century, there is a possibility that European ideals may have overshadowed a lot of the attention earlier signed systems may have gotten.
According to groups like Native American communities, people who were deaf by birth were physically and mentally capable. On the other hand, the people in Europe wouldn’t think so until the late 16th century. For instance, it was believed in many cultures that the deaf couldn’t be educated. And the few tutors who were willing to attempt it were either only available or affordable to the wealthy. In 685 AD, when John of Beverly, Bishop of York, taught a deaf person to speak, it was considered nothing short of a miracle. Later, he was canonized.
The Native Americans’ lingua franca
There has been evidence of groups of deaf people living together in communities even before the 17th century. Their communication consisted of basic signing systems. For instance, in Native American communities, more than one signing system existed as a lingua franca to communicate with the neighbouring tribes.
One of the most notable examples is the Plains Indian Sign Language. While differences existed between their languages, the ways of life and the environment of all the tribes shared similar elements. As a result, finding common symbols to communicate with one another was easy. A cupped hand leaping away from the ‘speaker’ meant the rump of a prancing deer. A circle traced against the sky represented either the moon or something as pale as the moon. A person on horseback was denoted by two fingers astride the other index finger. Two fingers spread and scurrying from the mouth like the tongue of a snake denoted treachery or lies. The gesture of brushing hair down over the shoulder or neck indicated a woman. This sign language gradually built up into a complex system that enabled the groups to communicate long and complex narratives.
Accounts such as those of the Native American communities show that sign languages were fairly complex. A number of settlers in Martha’s Vineyard, who were originally from a community in Kent, were believed to be carriers of deaf genes. This led to a large number of deaf people on the island from the 1700s, the highest being around 1840. The environment was ideal for the birth and development of what is known today as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language. This sign language was used by both the hearing and deaf alike on the island.
It was in the middle of the 18th century that Charles-Michel, abbé de l’Epée, developed a sort of sign language. He was considered the first educator of poor deaf children. l’Epée’s system consisted of spelling out French words using a manual alphabet and expressing full concepts with simple signs. And it was from l’Epée’s system that French Sign Language (FSL) was developed. FSL is still used in France today, and it is the precursor of many other sign languages, including American Sign Language (ASL).
In 1816, Thomas Gallaudet, who was the founder of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, brought FSL to the United States. ASL was formed by combining FSL with the already existing systems in the US. Today, ASL is the fourth most common language in the US. And since national sign languages like ASL signs represent concepts and not English or French words, they have more in common with one another than their spoken languages. One example of a system that employs hand signs to represent only sounds and not concepts is the Cued Speech. It was developed in 1966 by R. Orin Cornett, an American physicist. Cued Speech is used in conjunction with lip-reading, and its success has led to it being adapted into over 40 languages.
The Chinese and Japanese, whose languages employ the same body of characters but pronounce them completely differently, use sign language to communicate with one another. One of the speakers would trace mutually understood characters in their palms while the other person watches. Evidence has also been found that shows the long use of sign language among communities in Africa, Australia and North America, the most well-known one being that of the Plains Indians.
Sign language is also used by members of religious orders who have taken vows of silence. Others, who haven’t necessarily taken such vows, but for the reason of humility or piety, have forsworn speech, employ a sign language for communication. In a silent monastic order, natural gestures like passing food or pointing to a needed object have proved effective for communication, thus leaving little need for coded signs.
Basics of alphabets and finger spelling
Using the hands to indicate individual letters of a written alphabet is known as finger spelling. It’s a vital tool that allows signers to manually spell out the names of people, things and places that don’t have an established sign. For example, a majority of the sign languages have a specific sign for the word ‘tree.’ But they may not have one for ‘oak’, so o-a-k has to be specifically finger spelt to deliver that specific meaning.
The majority of people start their learning process of sign language by learning the A – Z or equivalent alphabet in sign form. And not every language employs the Latin alphabet like English, so the sign language alphabet is different as well. Some manual alphabets use only one hand, such as in FSL and ASL. Others are two-handed, like Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and British Sign Language (BSL). Although there exist similarities between some of the various manual alphabets, each sign language retains its own style and modifications, hence remaining unique.
Sign language alphabets from around the world
Sign languages, being the fully-fledged natural languages they are, are structurally different from spoken languages. There is an international sign language that is employed by the deaf and hard-of-hearing community when attending international meetings, or on informal occasions like socialising and travelling. This form is considered a pidgin form of sign language that isn’t as complex as natural sign languages. It employs a limited lexicon.
Other than the international sign language mentioned above, there is no single sign language employed across the world. Just like spoken language, sign languages were born naturally when through the interaction of different groups of people. Hence, there are plenty of varieties. Today, there are somewhere between 138 and 300 varieties of sign languages used around the world.
There is no single sign language used around the world. Like spoken language, sign languages developed naturally through different groups of people interacting with each other, so there are many varieties. There are somewhere between 138 and 300 different types of sign language used around the globe today. Another interesting thing is it is not necessary for the countries which share the same spoken language to share the same sign language. For example, English has three varieties- American Sign Language, British Sign Language and Australian Sign Language.
Let’s explore the alphabet of some of the sign languages around the world.
American Sign Language (ASL)
American Sign Language is derived from Old French Sign Language. And although it has the same alphabet as English, it isn’t a subset of the English language. Neither are the signs used in the same order as words are in English. ASL was created independently, with its own linguistic structure. It also has its own unique grammar and visual nature. ASL is used by roughly half a million individuals in the US.
British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language (BANZSL)
The British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language share a sign language alphabet. And unlike ASL, these alphabets employ two hands instead of one.
Plains Sign Talk (Indigenous to North America)
Plains Sign Language or the Plains Sign Talk is a sign language indigenous to North America. It was once used by the Plains Nations communities for trade, conducting ceremonies, telling stories and acting as a form of communication for the deaf. Nations across the central and western United States, central Canada and northern Mexico used the Plains Sign Language.
Chinese Sign Language (CSL)
While currently there is no data to confirm this, Chinese Sign Language is the most used sign language in the world. The language has been in use since the 1950s, and it uses the hands to visually represent written Chinese characters.
French Sign Language (LSF)
French Sign Language, since it serves as the root for ASL, is similar to ASL. There are minor differences.
Japanese Sign Language (JSL) Syllabary
The Japanese alphabet, which comprises phonetic syllables, serves as the basis for the Japanese Sign Language (JSL) Syllabary. In Japan, JSL is known as Nihon Shuwa.
Arabic Sign Language
The Arab Sign Language family is a group of sign languages used across the Arab Mideast. While data concerning these languages are rather scarce, a few of them have been noted, like the Levantine Arab Sign Language.
Spanish Sign Language (LSE)
Native to Spain, except Catalonia and Valencia, the Spanish Sign Language is officially recognized by the Spanish Government. Many countries that speak Spanish do not employ the Spanish Sign Language.
Mexican Sign Language (LSM)
Mexican Sign Language (LSM or ‘Lengua de señas Mexicana) is distinct from that of Spanish. It uses different word orders and verbs. LSM is mostly used by the people who live in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey. And within this language, variation runs high between different age groups and religious backgrounds.
Ukrainian Sign Language (USL)
Ukrainian Sign Language (USL) is based on the broad family of French Sign Languages. USL uses a one-handed manual alphabet comprising of 33 signs, which employs the 23 hand-shapes of USL.
Kenyan Sign Language
Kenyan Sign Language (KSL in English and LAK in Swahili) is employed by the deaf community of Kenya and Somalia. Some dialect differences do exist between Kisumu (western Kenya), Mombasa (Eastern Kenya) and Somalia.
How has sign language changed the world?
Sign language is how the deaf and hearing impaired communicate, convey their feelings, learn, contribute to a conversation and, overall, live their lives as normally as possible. Sign language plays a vital role in bridging the gap of communication between the deaf community and the rest of the world. The importance of sign language continues to grow as more number of people want to learn this unique form of communication. It is evident that more people see the need for it in the present day.