User:Ntennis/Sign language

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sign language lingustics - rough ideas - to be referenced etc.

A sign language is a language that uses a gestural-visual mode of communication. In contrast, a spoken language uses an oral-aural mode.

Kinds of sign language[edit]

We might classify gestural communication systems into three general groups:

  • Deaf sign languages - the primary languages of deaf communities around the world (true languages in every sense).
  • Auxiliary sign languages - used primarily by hearing people as an adjunct to their native spoken languages. Examples include Plains Indian Sign Language, the sign language of Trappist monks, and Australian Aboriginal sign languages. Ausiliary sign languages don't tend to share the spatial features of deaf sign languages. Simple auxiliary manual sign systems can be found in environments such as sawmills, television recording studios and hunting.
  • Manually coded languages or signed modes of spoken languages - primarily designed for use in deaf education as a manual means of representing spoken languages, such as the twelve or so forms of Manually Coded English.

This article is mainly about the linguistics of Deaf Sign Languages.

Recognition of sign languages by linguistics[edit]

While a few scholars throughout history have taken an interest in sign languages, such as Bede, Abbe de l'Epee, George Dalgarno, none saw sign languages as natural complex evolved languages. Scholars tended to see sign languages as somehow closer to a 'natural' way of communicating, more iconic, and lacking the sophistication of spoken languages which were seen as more highly evolved or civilised.

Modern linguistics is generally said to have started in the 18th century but even in 1933, Leonard Bloomfield wrote: .....(p. 39). [See also Edward Sapir 1921 p.21] Hockett 1960 p. 89 felt that the first and "perhaps the most obvious" feature that distinguishes language from non-linguistic communication was use of hte vocal-auditory channel.

The first to argue for the serious treatment of sign languages by linguistics was William Stokoe in 1960, in a paper arguing that ASL met the criteria set by linguists for a true language.

As of 2005 most signed languages haven't been studied by linguists. The sign language with the most published data is ASL, followed by BSL and German Sign Language. Studies on languages such as Arabic Sign Language and Indian/Pakistani Sign Language are just beginning to emerge.

Ingrained prejudices are hard to shift. Linguistics still defines language as ..'"speech..." blah blah

Sign language families and historical linguistics[edit]

Sign languages are often hard to categorise in terms of their genetic relationships. Many are creoles, or make use of extensive borrowing of loanwords from other sign languages or sign systems, as well as directly from the written form of the dominant spoken language of the region in the form of fingerspelling. Some appear to be language isolates, such as Turk Israet Dili. Others such as BSL, NZSL and Auslan are clearly direct descendants of the same language, and are part of a family known as BANZSL.

There is also a dearth of historical evidence as there has been no means of recording sign until the advent of film, and the area of sign languages has been largely neglected by scholars.

Evidence such as the spontaneous emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language, or the presence of sign languages in communities with a high incidence of deafness, as diverse as Yucatec Maya Sign Language, Bali sign langauge, Adoromobe sign language and Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, suggest that sign languages tend to arise naturally wherever a community of deaf people is found, especially when there are children. Manual communication between deaf people has been noted in the 4th century BC, in one of the earliest writings about language, Plato's Cratylus:

And let me ask another question: if we had no faculty of speech, how should we communicate with one another? Should we not use signs, like the deaf and dumb? The elevation of our hands would mean lightness; heaviness would be expressed by letting them drop. The running of any animal would be described by a similar movement of our own frames ... Suppose that we had no voice or tongue, and wanted to communicate with one another, should we not, like the deaf and dumb, make signs with the hands and head and the rest of the body? (Cratylus 4)

Throughout the ages, many scholars have specualted about a 'perfect' or 'natural' language. Kabbalistic grammatical speculation was directed at recovering the original language spoken by Adam in Paradise, lost in the confusion of tongues. It has often been specualted that these 'original' languages were signed rather than spoken. Resemblance of signs to observable phenomena (iconicity) has led some to see sign languages as more 'natural'. see Epee.

During the Renaissance, Lullian and Kabbalistic ideas were carried ad absurdum in a magical context, resulting in cryptographical applications. Many of these cryptographies have included hand signs. These were often used by monks as mnemonic aids, and may have played a part in the development of sign systems by european monks. Some of these signs have likely found their way into modern deaf sign languages through the introduction of manual alphabets by religious educators.

In the 17th century, interest in magical languages was continued by the Rosicrucians and Alchemists (e.g. John Dee). Jakob Boehme in 1623 spoke of a "natural language" (Natursprache) of the senses.

The 17th century also saw the rise of enthusiasm for creating perfect artificial languages. Pioneered by Francis Lodwick's A Common Writing (1647) and The Groundwork or Foundation laid (or So Intended) for the Framing of a New Perfect Language and a Universal Common Writing (1652), George Dalgarno (Ars signorum, 1661) and John Wilkins (Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language, 1668) produced systems of hierarchical classification that were intended to result in both spoken and written expression. Gottfried Leibniz with lingua generalis in 1678 pursued a similar end, aiming at a lexicon of characters upon which the user might perform calculations that would yield true propositions automatically, as a side-effect developing binary calculus. These projects were not only occupied with reducing or modelling grammar, but also with the arrangement of all human knowledge into "characters" or hierarchies, an idea that with the Enlightenment would ultimately lead to the Encyclopédie.

Some of these scholars were interested in sign language in this context as a way towards a more 'natural' or 'perfect' language. These claims were made by Epee and Dalgarno.

Saint Bede, and more recently by Abbe de l'Epee, George Dalgarno, .. Unfortunately scant record exists of their content, and whether there is a historical thread that connects them to the sign languages of today. Some writers have suggested that the advent of language by the human race was originally a sign language, and speech was only to develop later as the throat and larynx evolved.

Some of the earliest descriptions of the signs and grammar of a deaf sign lanaguage were in what is perhaps the first book published by a deaf author, Pierre Desloges, in which he describes Old French Sign Language.

Some linguists speculate that deaf sign languages arose in Europe with the rise of big cities. There were big cities in Asia long before this, so it is possible that older sign languages exist there.

We do know that sign languages are prone to rapid change. With new generations growing up with mostly young role models at school, with little media or recorded form to standardise, regional variations arise quickly. A good example can be seen in Australia where spoken English shows only very slight regional variation, a signer can be identified as a northern or southern dialect with a few signs; the variation in vocabulary is extensive. It seems that Auslan is changing more rapidly than Australian English.

Sign language vs spoken language[edit]

...discussion of manually coded languages, contact sign, code switching, lexical borrowing, fingerspelling.



Most sign languages appear to have a basic SVO word order, with varying degrees of flexibility.


Supalla and Newport identified noun and verb lexical classes in ASL, looking at related noun/verb pairs which differed in consistent morphological ways.[1]

According to the traditional analysis of verb classes in sign languages (Padden 1988),[2] verbs in many sign languages fall into one of three classes:

  • plain verbs
  • indicating or agreement verbs
  • spatial verbs

"Agreement verbs, verbs denoting transfer, encode the syntactic role of the arguments, as well as their person and number features, by the direction of the movement of the hands and the facing of the palms. In spatial verbs, the class of verbs denoting motion and location in space, the direction of movement encodes the locations of locative arguments, the source and the goal. The shape of the path movement the hands are tracing often depicts the shape of the path that an object traverses in space. Plain verbs, which constitute the default semantic class, do not encode any grammatical features of their arguments."[3]

Agreement verbs are those verbs which encode person and number features of their subject and (indirect) object arguments. Semantically, agreement verbs denote transfer events, the transfer of an entity (concrete or abstract) from a former to a future possessor. Unlike plain verbs, which have one verb form, agreement verbs have numerous forms. However, each agreement verb also has a citation form, a form used as a dictionary entry, to represent the lexeme.

Plain verbs can be body anchored.

Body as subject: "Plain verbs, in particular body anchored plain verbs, can now be defined as the set of verbs in which the body is subject and the category of grammatical person is not encoded. In the inflected forms of agreement verbs, the body is no longer subject. Rather, body is 1st person, locations in the signing space are associated with non-1st-person referents, and the the hands, in particular the direction of movement and the facing of the hands, encode syntactic and semantic roles of the arguments."


"an important difference between agreement verbs and plain verbs is in the role of the body. In plain verbs, the body represents the subject, and the category of person is not encoded. In agreement verbs, the body encodes 1st person, and the hands take care of all the rest, that is, encoding non-1st person referents as well as their syntactic roles."


(1) CLASS-1 (animate and vehicles), (2) CLASS-2 (inanimate and object), and (3) SASS.

Phonetics and phonology[edit]

Different theorists have described different models for analysing the sub-lexical structures of sign languages. A prominent model describes five parameters:

  • Handshape
  • Orientation of the palm
  • Location of the sign
  • Movement
  • Non-manual features such as role shifting, head shake, lip-patterns and facial expression.

Stokoe, Casterline and Croneber (1965) originally described the first four of these (handshape, place of articulation, movement and orientation).

B. Bergman (1982) described the articulator (handshape and attitude), articulation (movement direction and interaction) and location.

S. K. Liddell and R. E. Johnson (1985) proposed a system called Move-Hold.

W. Sandler (1986) proposed the Hand Tier model, where handshape is more prominent.

These considerations are important in determining the order of a dictionary, for example.

Language vs gesture[edit]

The line between linguistic and non-linguistic forms of gesture or facial expression is not clear in sign languages. In fact, in "the signs of language" by ... , a distinction is not drawn between gesture and spoken langs either.



Typology is the study of languages based on their linguistic features. Common typological classifications include things like a preference or subject-verb-object (SVO) word order.

Research in this area is still new, but anecdotal evidence suggests that genetically unrelated sign languages, while having different vocabularies, share a high degree of structural similarity.

Many sign languages have a preference for SVO, though they vary in their degree of flexibility in word order.

Are sign languages non configurational languages?

All NSL's seem to use template morphology (modifying the shape of the morpheme) rather than adding prefixes or suffixes and different types of reduplication are common in all NSL's.

All NSL's seem to inflect some verbs for subject and/or object, though just which verbs can inflect and how they do so varies somewhat between different NSL's

The pronoun systems of most NSL's tend to be similar and most have a two person system (first person and non-first person) Second and third person aren't really distinguished (Although non-first person does have a distinction between present and non-present which _may_ be the factor that divides second and third person). Pronouns themselves in NSL's are hard to classify and in my own work I tend to consider them a unique word class.

NSL's all seem to have classifiers (there's a good deal of argument about whether this term was well chosen). Classifiers are usually bound morphemes based on differeing handshapes and combine with directional and spatial markers to create complex verb strctures. (Some claim the system is similar to shape verbs of Navajo and other Amerindian languages, others disagree).


Native speakers are the standard for identifying the proper use of a language, and make up the majority of speakers of most languages. In most signed languages, however, native speakers, defined as learning the language from birth, are a small minority. They are mostly deaf children with deaf parents, and make up about 4-5% of the sign language community in Australia and the US. Sign languages stand in marked contrast to spoken languages in that they are not generally acquired from parents at birth.

The majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents who don't sign. These children may attempt to develop their own system of home signs, and may acquire sign language from other deaf children at school (especially if there are peers who are native signers). Studies have consistently shown that the critical period for first language acqusition is the first 6 years of life - those learning first languages later than this show lower language skills on average, with a decreasing average the older the age of acquisition. For many deaf children, their first language is an imperfectly understood spoken language. The adult signing community has come from this mix of backgrounds.

This leads to a wide variation in sign language use, and a culture of tolerance for this variation. Few fluent users will 'correct' a child's grammar in sign languages as adults will to children in spoken languages. The large numbers of deaf people acquiring sign language after an initial (imperfect) exposure to the dominant spoken language also leads to an influence from the spoken language on the sign language for those signers.

When analysing sign languages, linguists tend to study the 5% of native signers, though they are a minority in the signing community.


Much of the discussion of sign language linguistics has focussed on the notion of the iconicity of signs — unlike spoken languages where the form of words bears no relationship to what they are referencing (a notable esception being onomatopea), signs in sign language very often bear an obvious relationship to what they signify.

However, though the signs for 'tree' in three sign languages might all be iconic, they are all very different.

Sign language linguists, struggling against notions of the 'primitiveness' or 'gestural' nature of sign languages, have emphasised the arbitrariness of signs. Arbitrariness has been seen as one of the defining features of languagess. However in recent years linguists have begun to look at the notion of iconicity in sign languages in more detail ...


The term iconicity to refers to the regular mapping between formational elements of an expression and components of its meaning.

  • Taub, S. F. (2001). Language from the body: Iconicity and metaphor in American Sign Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Russo T., (2004), Iconicity and Productivity in Sign Language Discourse: An Analysis of Three LIS discourse registers. Sign Language Studies 4, 2; pp. 164-197.

Writing systems[edit]

Sign languages have no written forms in general use by the signing communities. However linguists have developed various forms of recording sign languages for analysis. Perhaps the most faithful method is the moving image, such as film or video. However, in order to compare data, we need to break up signs into meaningful parts and record them somehow. The world of academic publishing also requires written articles, and linguists need some way to show the signs that are being discussed. So several writing systems have arisen.


Stokoe notation[edit]

Hamburg Notation System (HamNoSys)[edit]

Sign writing[edit]

See main article: SignWriting.

Developed by Valerie Sutton,

Other systems[edit]

LaMont West, databases, etc...

Signed languages and spoken languages[edit]

Early linguistic research on sign languages emphasised the similarities between signed and spoken languages, in part to address the lack of regard linguistics has traditionally held for sign langauges. More recently researchers have begun investigating differences between signed and spoken languages, and exploring the many ways in which sign languages are unique.


  • compex languages with syntactic, morphological, phonological rules.
  • linguistic features of some sign languages can be seen in some spoken languages (typological similarities such as topic-comment syntax can be found in both ASL and Japanese)


  • nativeness
  • simltaneity
  • method of articulation - it takes twice as long on average to produce a sign in ASL than a word in English.

Most sign languages exist within a larger dominant culture of a spoken language, which inevitably influences the sign language. This is especially true through the influence of Manually Coded Languages in deaf education. Despite this, it is remarkable how different the sign languages often are, typologically, from these dominant spoken languages. For instance, Auslan (Australian Sign Language) has a topic-comment syntax that is closer to Japanese than to spoken English.

There is a very tricky grey area between what constitutes Auslan and what constitutes signed English. There seems to be a lot of lexical borrowing from English, and extending of certain signs to meanings that are homophonous in English (eg. "don't mind", which takes an Auslan grammatical form, the upturned palm of negation, and an English idiom where to mind is akin to being perturbed).


Variation in sign language[edit]

Sign languages exhibit a high degree of variation, in age, regional dialects, school signs, sometimes ethnicity (white vs black southern US sign, Afrikaans vs english deaf South Africans) and gender. The presence of hearing people or people from different language background also determines to a great degree the register the signer will choose. A continuum is often posited between, for example, signed German and German sign language — a dialog between a deaf signer and a hearing person tends to fall somewhere in the middle, in a contact language zone known as Pidgin Sign English when spoken the language is English.

Home sign[edit]

See main article: Home sign

Endangered sign languages[edit]


  • Stokoe (1960) Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf
  • klima and bellugi
  • Sign Language & Linguistics (journal) ISSN: 1387-9316
  • Sign Language Studies (journal)
    • ^ Supalla, T. and M. Newport. 1978. "How Many Seats in a Chair? The Derivation of Nouns and Verbs in American Sign Language". In Understanding Language Through Sign Language Research, New York: New York Academic Press, pp. 91-131.
    • ^ Padden, C. (1988). Interaction of Morphology and Syntax in American Sign Language: Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics, Series IV. New York: Garland Press.
    • ^ RE-THINKING SIGN LANGUAGE VERB CLASSES: THE BODY AS SUBJECT, Irit Meir, Carol Padden, Mark Aronoff and Wendy Sandler