Home sign

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Home sign (or kitchen sign) is the gestural communication system developed by a deaf child who lacks input from a language model in the family. This is a common experience for deaf children with hearing parents who are isolated from a sign language community.

While not developing into a complete language (as linguists understand the term), home sign systems show some of the same characteristics of signed and spoken languages, and are quite distinguishable from the gestures that accompany speech. Words and simple sentences are formed, often in similar patterns despite different home sign systems being developed in isolation from each other. Comparisons are often made between home sign and pidgins. There is great disparity among families with respect to the extent to which family members attempt to learn or participate in the signing of the deaf child. In many cases, no one but the deaf child attempts to sign more than minimally. When two or more children in a family are deaf, however, a more sophisticated private language develops.

Linguists have been interested in home sign for the insights it offers into the uniquely human ability to generate, acquire, and process language in general, and particularly as it pertains to such topics as the origins of language, notions of linguistic universals, the hypothesized critical period for language acquisition, children's natural tendency to invent language (language acquisition device), and the relationship between gesture and language. The experience of home signers is contrasted with that of feral children who, with no human social interaction, develop no language at all.

Sign languages[edit]

Nancy Frishberg set out a framework for identifying and describing home-based sign systems in 1987. She states that home signs differ from sign languages in that they:

  • do not have a consistent meaning-symbol relationship,
  • do not pass on from generation to generation,
  • are not shared by one large group,
  • and are not considered the same over a community of signers.

For example, the alleged Rennellese Sign Language of the Solomon Islands was used by a single deaf individual and his friends and family, and ended with his death.

Home sign is often the starting point for new deaf sign languages that emerge when deaf people come together. For example, following the establishment of the first deaf schools in Nicaragua in the 1970s, the previously isolated deaf children quickly developed their own sign language, now known as Nicaraguan Sign Language, from the building blocks of their own diverse home sign systems.

For several reported sign languages, it's not clear if they are a collection of home sign used by various families, with similarities due to the common system of gestures used by the hearing population augmented by mime, or an incipient coherent sign language. Such systems include Marajo Sign Language in Brazil, described primarily between deaf mothers and their young children,[1] Maxakali Sign Language, also in Brazil, which is at the least is a very young language,[2] and Mehek Sign Language in northwestern Papua New Guinea, in which signs are quite variable between families, with only a few dozen held in common, all of which are highly mimetic.[3]

Home sign also played a part in the formation of American Sign Language, which is a blend of home sign, Old French Sign Language, Martha's Vineyard Sign Language and Plains Indian Sign Language[citation needed].

According to Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller had developed over sixty home signs long before she was taught to communicate through finger spelling.[4]

Prominent studies[edit]

  • Susan Goldin-Meadow has published a number of articles on home sign systems. She found that the home sign gestures of American deaf children are not acquired from modelling the gestures of their hearing parents — they more closely resemble the gestures of the Chinese deaf children halfway across the globe. They are structured communication systems that include gestures that function as words, which are combined to form sentences, and are used to describe situations beyond the here-and-now.
  • Adam Kendon published a celebrated study of the signing system of a deaf Enga woman from the Papua New Guinea highlands, in which he investigated the notion of iconicity in language and gesture. This Enga Sign Language is used by a range of hearing and deaf individuals.

See also[edit]


  • Frishberg, N. 1987. Home sign. In J. Van Cleve (ed.), Gallaudet encyclopedia of deaf people and deafness (Vol. 3, pp. 128–131). New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Goldin-Meadow, Susan, 2003, The Resilience of Language: What Gesture Creation in Deaf Children Can Tell Us About How All Children Learn Language, Psychology Press, a subsidiary of Taylor & Francis, New York, 2003
  • Van Deusen-Phillips S.B., Goldin-Meadow S., Miller P.J., 2001. Enacting Stories, Seeing Worlds: Similarities and Differences in the Cross-Cultural Narrative Development of Linguistically Isolated Deaf Children, Human Development, Vol. 44, No. 6
  • Fusellier-Souza, Ivani, 2004, Sémiogenèse des Langues des Signes: Étude de Langues des Signes Primaires (LSP) Pratiquées par des Sourds Brésiliens. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Université Paris 8, Saint-Denis.
  • Fusellier-Souza, Ivani, Fall 2006, Emergence and Development of Signed Languages: From a Semiogenetic Point of View, in Sign Language Studies 7:1, 30-56.
  • Kendon, A. 1980a. A description of a deaf-mute sign language from the Enga Province of Papua New Guinea with some comparative discussion. Part I: the formational properties of Enga signs. Semiotica 31(1/2): 1-34.
  • Kendon A. 1980b. The description of a deaf-mute sign language from the Enga Province of Papua New Guinea with some comparative discussion. Part II: the semiotic functioning of Enga signs. Semiotica 32 (1/2):81-117,
  • Kendon A. 1980c. A description of a deaf-mute sign language from the Enga Province of Papua NewGuinea with some comparative discussion. Part III: aspects of utterance construction. Semiotica 32 (3/4):245-313.
  • Morford, Jill P 1996. Insights to language from the study of gesture: A review of research on the gestural communication of non-signing deaf people. In "Language and Communication", 16 2, pp 165–178
  • Torigoe, Takashi, and Takei, Wataru. 2002, A Descriptive Analysis of Pointing and Oral Movements in a Home Sign System, in "Sign Language Studies" - Volume 2, Number 3, Spring 2002, pp. 28المغرب
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  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2][3]
  3. ^ [4]
  4. ^ "At the time when I became her teacher, she had made for herself upward of sixty signs, all of which were imitative and were readily understood by those who knew her. The only signs which I think she may have invented were her signs for SMALL and LARGE." Anne Sullivan, letters reprinted in The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, entire text online at gutenberg.org.