Sign Language

I. Introduction

Sign Language, communication system using gestures that are interpreted visually. Many people in deaf communities around the world use sign languages as their primary means of communication. These communities include both deaf and hearing people who converse in sign language. But for many deaf people, sign language serves as their primary, or native, language, creating a strong sense of social and cultural identity. (see Deaf Culture)

Sign language can also be used as an alternative means of communication by hearing people. For example, in the United States during the 19th century, groups of Native Americans in the Plains who spoke different languages used a sign language now known as Plains Indian Sign Talk to communicate with each other.

Languages can be conveyed in different ways known as modalities. The most important modalities are speech, writing, and sign. Modality should not be confused with language, however. English and Navajo, for example, share a modality–speech–although they are different languages. The same is true for sign languages. Even though British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) share the signed modality, they are two distinct languages. English, Navajo, BSL, and ASL constitute four distinct languages.

Sign languages exhibit the same types of variation that spoken languages do. For example, sign languages have dialects that vary from region to region. In the United States, many African Americans in the South who communicate through sign language use a variant of standard ASL, just as many African Americans might communicate through their own vernacular English in speech. In Switzerland, there are five geographic dialects of Swiss German Sign Language with slight variations that derive from regional schools for the deaf. In Dublin, Ireland, where boys and girls attend different schools, the sign language used by deaf boys has a distinctly different vocabulary from that used by deaf girls. Although girls learn the boys' signs when they begin dating, after marriage women continue to use the female signs with girls and women.

II. Sign Language and Deaf Education

The first school for the deaf, the Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets (Royal Institute for the Deaf and Mute), was established in Paris during the 18th century. Teachers at the institute taught in French Sign Language (FSL), a language already in use in Paris and other parts of France.

In 1816 American educator Thomas Gallaudet traveled to Paris to study the French method of deaf education at the institute. His interest was prompted by the deaf daughter of a close friend who wished to go to school. Gallaudet returned to the United States with a deaf teacher named Laurent Clerc and together they established the first American school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. They adapted the French signing method for use in American classrooms. The merger of French signs with signs in use by American deaf people formed what is now called American Sign Language.

Opposition to teaching sign language in the classroom arose at the end of the 19th century from educators who believed in teaching deaf children to speak, a method known as oralism. Supporters of oralism proposed that deaf people would be less isolated from the hearing community if they learned to speak instead of sign. They also claimed that speech was a gift from God and viewed sign language as an inferior system of communication. By the beginning of the 20th century oralism had become the accepted method of deaf education in both the United States and France. Schools for the deaf promoted lip reading and speaking, often punishing children when they signed among themselves.

In the 1960s American linguist William C. Stokoe pioneered the modern linguistic study of sign language. By demonstrating that sign languages were natural languages with distinct vocabularies and grammatical structures, Stokoe's work changed the way in which deaf educators viewed oralism. Although American educators still taught lip reading and speaking, during the 1970s and 1980s they began to bring the teaching of sign language back into the classroom. In the 1990s U.S. educators remain divided on whether and how to teach ASL to deaf children, and the extent to which sign language is used in the classroom varies from school to school.

Although exact numbers are unavailable, estimates of the number of deaf people in the United States and Canada who use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary language range from 100,000 to 500,000.

III. Characteristics of Sign Language

Linguists have found that sign languages and spoken languages share many features. Like spoken languages, which use units of sounds to produce words, sign languages use units of form. These units are composed of four basic hand forms: hand shape, such as an open hand or closed fist; hand location, such as on the middle of the forehead or in front of the chest; hand movement, such as upward or downward; and hand orientation, such as the palm facing up or out.

In spoken languages units of sound combine to make meaning. Separately, b, e, and t have no meaning. However, together they form the word bet. Sign languages contain units of form that by themselves hold no meaning, but when combined create a word. Spoken languages and sign languages differ in the way these units combine to make words, however. In spoken languages units of sound and meaning are combined sequentially. In sign languages, units of form and meaning are typically combined simultaneously.

IV. American Sign Language

In ASL signs follow a certain order, just as words do in spoken English. However, in ASL one sign can express meaning that would necessitate the use of several words in speech. For example, the words in the statement "I stared at it for a long time" each contain a unit of meaning. In ASL, this same sentence would be expressed as a single sign. The signer forms "look at" by making a V under the eyes with the first and middle fingers of the right hand. The hand moves out toward the object being looked at, repeatedly tracing an oval to indicate "over a long time." To express the adverb "intently" the signer squints the eyes and purses the lips. (To purse the lips is like saying mmmm; pull back and tighten the lips with the lips closed.) Although the English words used to describe the ASL signs are written out in order, in sign language a person forms the signs "look at,""long time," and "intently" at the same time.

&tab; ASL has a rich system for modifying the meaning of signs. Verbs such as "look at" can be changed to indicate that the activity takes place without interruption, repeatedly, or over a long time. The adjective "sick," for example, is formed by placing the right middle finger on the forehead and the left middle finger on the stomach. By forming the sign "sick" and repeatedly moving the left hand in a circle, the signer can indicate that someone is characteristically or always sick.

Facial grammar, such as raised eyebrows, also can modify meaning. For example, a signer can make the statement "He is smart" by forming the ASL sign for "smart"–placing the middle finger at the forehead–and then quickly pointing it outward as if toward another person to indicate "he." To pose the question "Is he smart?" the signer accompanies this sign with raised eyebrows and a slightly tilted head.

V. Other Signing Systems

People who sign sometimes use fingerspelling to represent letters of the alphabet. In some sign languages, including ASL, fingerspelling serves as a way to borrow words from spoken language. A deaf person might, for example, choose to fingerspell "d-o-g" for "dog" instead of using a sign. Several types of fingerspelling systems exist. FSL and ASL use a one-handed system, whereas BSL has a two-handed system.

In an effort to teach deaf children the spoken and written language of the hearing community, educators of deaf children often use invented sign systems in addition to the primary sign language. Examples of such systems in the United States include Signing Exact English, Seeing Essential English, and Cued Speech. These systems often mix ASL signs with English word order and grammar. Typically, they incorporate a sign from ASL to represent the base or stem of a spoken English word. To this they add various invented signs to form suffixes (for example, the -ness at the end of kindness), prefixes (for example, the pre- at the beginning of premature), and other parts of words. In this way, the signed English word prearrangements might consist of a base sign for "arrange" together with invented signs for the prefix pre- and the suffixes -ment and -s.

In Signed Exact English, a fingerspelled letter is sometimes used in conjunction with a sign in a process called initialization. For example, by fingerspelling "f" or "e" with the base sign "money" (a two-handed gesture in which the upturned right hand, grasping some imaginary bills, is repeatedly brought down onto the upturned left palm) a signer can differentiate between the English words finance and economics.

Linguists still have much to learn about the world's sign languages. What has become clear is that hundreds, if not thousands, of sign languages exist around the world.

Contributed By:

Sherman Wilcox, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Linguistics, Department of Linguistics, University of New Mexico. Author of American Deaf Culture: An Anthology, American Sign Language as a Second Language, and other books.


"Sign Language," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


© 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation.

All rights reserved.