Indo-Pakistani Sign Language

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For the Native American sign language, see Plains Indian Sign Language.
Indo-Pakistani Sign Language
Native to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh
Native speakers
2.7 million in India  (2003)[1]
number in Pakistan and Bangladesh unknown[2]
Possibly related to Nepalese Sign
Bangalore-Madras Sign Language
Bombay Sign Language
Calcutta Sign Language
Delhi Sign Language
North West Frontier Province Sign Language
Punjab-Sindh Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
ins – Indian Sign Language, Indo-Pakistani Sign Language
pks – Pakistani Sign Language
Glottolog indi1237  (Indian SL)[3]
paki1242  (Pakistan SL)[4]

Indo-Pakistani Sign Language (IPSL) is the predominant sign language in South Asia, used by at least several hundred thousand deaf signers (2003).[5][6] As with many sign languages, it is difficult to estimate numbers with any certainty, as the Census of India does not list sign languages and most studies have focused on the north and on urban areas.[7]

The Indian deaf population of 1.1 million is 98% illiterate[citation needed]. In line with oralist philosophy, deaf schools attempt early intervention with hearing aids etc., but these are largely dysfunctional in an impoverished society. As of 1986, only 2% of deaf children attended school.[citation needed]

Pakistan has a deaf population of 0.24 million, which is approximately 7.4% of the overall disabled population in the country.[8]

Status of sign language[edit]

Deaf schools in the region are overwhelmingly oralist in their approach.[9]

Since 2001, a group at the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute for the Hearing Handicapped (AYJNIHH) has been working on providing teaching material and training teachers for ISL. The Rehabilitation Council of India and the Ishara Foundation, are also involved in ISL training, English through ISL, and interpreter training. A number of vocational schools, e.g. ITI Secunderabad, use ISL for teaching. Other institutes such as the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing remain exclusively focused on oralism.

In 2005, India the National Curricular Framework (NCF) gave some degree of legitimacy to sign language education, by hinting that sign languages may qualify as an optional third language choice for hearing students. NCERT in March 2006 launched a class III text includes a chapter on sign language, emphasizing the fact that it is a language like any other and is “yet another mode of communication." The aim was to create healthy attitudes towards the differently abled.


There are many varieties of sign language in the region, including many pockets of home sign and local sign languages, such as Ghandruk Sign Language, Jhankot Sign Language, and Jumla Sign Language in Nepal, which appear to be language isolates; there are also various Sri Lankan sign languages which may not even be related to each other. However, the urban varieties of India, Pakistan, Nepal (Nepalese Sign Language), and Bangladesh are clearly related (although, for Nepalese Sign Language at least, it is not clear whether the relation is genetic, or perhaps rather one of borrowing compounded by extensive incorporation of a shared South Asian gestural base). Woodward (1993) found cognacy rates of 62–71; he concluded that the various varieties are separate languages belonging to the same language family.[10] However, Zeshan (2000) proposes that Indian and Pakistani SL are varieties of a single language.[7] Ethnologue (2000, 2005) notes that the urban varieties of India ('Urban Indian Sign Language', also used in Bangladesh and Pakistan) share about 75% of their vocabulary, that Pakistani SL may be the same language, and that Nepali SL is related.[11] They identify the following dialects within India:

  • Mumbai--Delhi Sign Language (or separately: Delhi Sign Language, Bombay Sign Language), the most influential
  • Calcutta Sign Language
  • Bangalore--Madras Sign Language (or Bangalore--Chennai--Hyderabad Sign Language)

While the sign system in ISL appears to be largely indigenous, elements in ISL are derived from British Sign Language. For example, most ISL signers nowadays use fingerspelling based on British Sign Language fingerspelling, with only isolated groups using an indigenous devanagari-based fingerspelling system (for example, Deaf students and graduates of the school for the deaf in Vadodara/Baroda, Gujarat). In addition, more recently contact with foreign Deaf has resulted in rather extensive borrowing from International Signs and (either directly or via International Signs) from American Sign Language. A small number of the Deaf in and around Bengaluru are often said to use American Sign Language (owing to a longstanding ASL deaf school there); however it is probably more correct to say that they use a lexicon based largely on ASL (or Signed English), while incorporating also a not inconsequential ISL element. Furthermore, regardless of the individual signs used, the grammar used is clearly ISL and not ASL.[citation needed]

The Delhi Association for the Deaf is reportedly working with Jawaharlal Nehru University to identify a standard sign language for India.[12]


Early history[edit]

Although discussion of sign languages and the lives of deaf people is extremely rare in the history of South Asian literature, there are a few references to deaf people and gestural communication in texts dating from antiquity.[13] Symbolic hand gestures known as mudras have been employed in religious contexts in Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism for many centuries, although these religious traditions have often excluded deaf people from participation in ritual or religious membership.[14] In addition, classical Indian dance and theatre often employs stylised hand gestures with particular meanings.[15]

An early reference to gestures used by deaf people for communication appears in a 12th-century Islamic legal commentary, the Hidayah. In the influential text, deaf (or "dumb") people have legal standing in areas such as bequests, marriage, divorce and financial transactions, if they communicate habitually with intelligble signs.[16]

Early in the 20th century, a high incidence of deafness was observed among communities of the Naga hills. As has happened elsewhere in such circumstances (see, for example, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language), a village sign language had emerged and was used by both deaf and hearing members of the community. Ethnologist and political officer John Henry Hutton wrote:

(See Naga Sign Language.) However, it is unlikely that any of these sign systems are related to modern IPSL, and deaf people were largely treated as social outcasts throughout South Asian history.

Residential deaf schools[edit]

Documented deaf education began with welfare services, mission schools and orphanages from the 1830s, and "initially worked with locally-devised gestural or signed communication, sometimes with simultaneous speech."[18] Later in the 19th century, residential deaf schools were established, and they tended (increasingly) to adopt an oralist approach over the use of sign language in the classroom. These schools included The Bombay Institution for Deaf-Mutes, which was founded by Bishop Leo Meurin in the 1880s,[19] and schools in Madras[20] and Calcutta[21] which opened in the 1890s. Other residential schools soon followed, such as the "School for Deaf and Dumb Boys" at Mysore, founded in 1902,[22] a school in Dehiwala in what is now Sri Lanka, founded in 1913,[23] and "The Ida Rieu School for blind, deaf, dumb and other defective children", founded in 1923 in Karachi, in what is now Pakistan.[24]

While a few students who were unable to learn via the oralist method were taught with signs, many students preferred to communicate with each other via sign language, sometimes to the frustration of their teachers. The first study of the sign language of these children, which is almost certainly related to modern IPSL, was in 1928 by British teacher H. C. Banerjee. She visited three residential schools for deaf children, at Dacca, Barisal and Calcutta, observing that "in all these schools the teachers have discouraged the growth of the sign language, which in spite of this official disapproval, has grown and flourished."[25] She compared sign vocabularies at the different schools and described the signs in words in an appendix.

A rare case of a public event conducted in sign language was reported by a mission in Palayamkottai in 1906: "Our services for the Deaf are chiefly in the sign language, in which all can join alike, whether learning Tamil, as those do who belong to the Madras Presidency, or English, which is taught to those coming from other parts."[26]


IPSL shares grammatical features with many other deaf sign languages, including the use of space and simultaneity and the five meaningful parameters of handshape, location, orientation, movement and non-manual features such as body position, head movement and facial expression. Some specifics are described by sign language linguist Ulrike Zeshan in her study of IPSL grammar:

Popular culture[edit]

Indian Sign language has appeared in numerous Indian films such as:

  • Koshish, 1972 film about a deaf couple.
  • Mozhi, 2007 film about the love story of a deaf and mute girl.
  • Khamoshi: The Musical, a 1996 film about a deaf couple with a daughter who becomes a musician.
  • Black, a 2005 film about a blind and deaf girl based in part on the life of Helen Keller.


  1. ^ Indian Sign Language, Indo-Pakistani Sign Language at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    Pakistani Sign Language at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ The estimate of 5.9 million from Ethnologue 18's reference, IMB, is the number of deaf people.
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Indian Sign Language". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Pakistan Sign Language". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  5. ^ Vasishta, M., J. C. Woodward, and K. L. Wilson (1978). "Sign Language in India: Regional Variation within the Deaf Population". Indian Journal of Applied Linguistics 4 (2): 66–74. 
  6. ^ Ethnologue gives the signing population in India as 2,680,000 in 2003.
    Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.) (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. 
  7. ^ a b Ulrike Zeshan (2000). Sign Language of Indo-Pakistan: A description of a Signed Language. Philadelphia, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co. 
  8. ^ Pakistan Sign Language – A Synopsis
  9. ^ Dilip Deshmukh (1996). Sign Language and Bilingualism in Deaf Education,. Ichalkaranji,. 
  10. ^ Woodward, J (1993). "The relationship of sign language varieties in India, Pakistan and Nepal". Sign Language Studies (78): 15–22. 
  11. ^ "Ethnologue entry on Indian Sign Language". Retrieved 2007-05-05. 
  12. ^ Press Trust of India (2004-09-16). "Standard sign language for the deaf in India soon". New Delhi,: Hindustan Times. 
  13. ^ M. Miles (2001). "Sign, Gesture & Deafness in South Asian & South-West Asian Histories: a bibliography with annotation and excerpts from India; also from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma / Myanmar, Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, Persia / Iran, & Sri Lanka.". Retrieved 2007-05-06. 
  14. ^ Scholar of Oriental studies H. W. Bailey identifies passages in the Avesta (Yast 5.93) and the Vinaya, e.g. "Excluded from the Buddhist Theravāda community (sangha-) were the andha-, mUga-, and badhira-, 'the blind, dumb, and deaf'." (Footnote: Pali Vinaya I, 91, 15)
    Bailey, H.W. (1961). "Arya III". Bull. School of Oriental & African Studies (24): 470–483. 
  15. ^ Shukla, Hira Lal (1994). Semiotica Indica. Encyclopaedic dictionary of body-language in Indian art and culture. 2 vols. New Delhi: Aryan Books International. 
  16. ^ Vol. IV, Book LIII. Al-Marghinani (1870, reprint 1975, 4 vols in one). The Hedaya or Guide. A commentary on the Mussulman laws. 2nd edn. transl. Charles Hamilton, ed. Standish Grady. Lahore: Premier Book.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  17. ^ Hutton, John Henry (1921). The Angami Nagas, with some notes on neighbouring tribes. London: MacMillan. pp. 291–292. 
  18. ^ Miles, M. 2001, extended and updated 2006-04. "Signs of Development in Deaf South & South-West Asia: histories, cultural identities, resistance to cultural imperialism". This is a further revised, extended and updated version of a chapter first published in: Alison Callaway (ed) Deafness and Development, University of Bristol, Centre for Deaf Studies, 2001. Internet publication URL:
  19. ^ Hull, Ernest R. (1913) Bombay Mission-History with a special study of the Padroado Question. Volume II 1858-1890. Bombay: Examiner Press
  20. ^ Report on Public Instruction in the Madras Presidency for 1892-93. Madras, 1893. (Report by D. Duncan).
  21. ^ Editorial (1895), "The deaf mutes in India". The Indian Magazine and Review, August 1895, pp. 436-38. (Quoting largely an article by Ernest J.D. Abraham, in The British Deaf-Mute, May 1895).
  22. ^ Iyer, A. Padmanabha (1938). "Modern Mysore, impression of a visitor". Trivandrum: Sridhara Printing House. pp 78-83
  23. ^ Smith, M. Saumarez (1915) "C.E.Z.M.S. Work among the Deaf in India & Ceylon". London: Church of England Zenana Mission Society. p. 13
  24. ^ Report on Public Instruction in the Bombay Presidency for the Year 1923-24. Bombay: Central Govt Press. 1925. (Report by M. Hesketh). p. 91
  25. ^ Banerjee, H.C. (1928) The sign language of deaf-mutes. Indian Journal of Psychology 3: 69-87. (quote from p.70)
  26. ^ Swainson, Florence (1906). "Report of the Deaf and Dumb and Industrial School in connection with the Church of England Zenana Mission, Palamcottah, South India, for 1905". Palamcottah: Church Mission Press. p.9
  27. ^ Zeshan, U. (2003). "Indo-Pakistani Sign Language Grammar: A Typological Outline." Sign Language Studies 3:2, 157-212.

Further reading[edit]

  • Deshmukh, D (1997), "Sign Language and Bilingualism in Deaf Education". Ichalkaranj, India: Deaf Foundation.
  • Sulman, Nasir & Zuberi, Sadaf (2002) "Pakistan Sign Language - A synopsis".

External links[edit]