Sign languages – a thorn in linguists’ flesh

by Agnieszka Gorońska

In the 19th and 20th century children using these languages were beaten and adults were scorned. Chomsky couldn’t fit them in his definition of language as ‘a particular relationship between sound and meaning’ and they would evade some of Greenberg’s linguistic univerals. The technical name for the group using these languages was… dumb.
Ladies and Gentlemen, today let me present sign languages.

I can see those eyebrows raised – many cannot reckon that there are hundred or possibly thousands of sign languages. “Isn’t it just waving hands? In how many ways can you wave your hands?” And then speciation in the evolution of sign languages is similar to that of spoken tongues. If two human tribes of the same descent lose contact then, then a few tens or hundreds of years their languages will differ significantly.

Deaf communities are much more dispersed than hearing ones. Today the Deaf (yes, capitalised) are treated as a cultural group (I hesitate to term them ‘ethnic’ but yes, they’re a minority) counting worldwide as many as 70 Million members. Although in Poland the Deaf are more numerous than Kashubians or Lithuanians, there are no towns or villages dominated by the Deaf only.

In other countries it varies – the USA’s centre of the Deaf is Gallaudet University – founded in 1864 (despite the unfavourable political currents of the time), its campus is populated by 3000 people on a daily basis, most of them deaf and hard-of-hearing. In Turkey the main centre of the Deaf is Mardin, a 90 thousand town’s population has in its veins the blood of 5 families with genetically impaired hearing, hence a relatively big population of the Deaf. The town has its own native Mardin Sign Language which is currently endangered as the youth leave for bigger cities where they switch to Turkish Sign Language.

The town of Manague in Nicaragua is a linguistic gem. In 1970s in its special school a group of ca. 50 Deaf children spontaneously developed the first local sign language – Nicaraguan Sign Language. For the past 40 years a bunch of scholars studied the birth of the language in vivo.

A thing which brings bad publicity to sign languages are signed languages – artificial pantomimic transliteration of local languages. Thus in Poland apart from Polish Sign Language there exists System Językowo-Migany. In the USA beside ASL (American Sign Language) there’s also SEE (Sign Exact English). Japan has Nihon Shuwa (日本手話) and Nihongo Taiou Shuwa (日本語対応手話). Sign languages are natural with their own syntax, idioms and morphology, and have nothing in common with the phonic languages of the given territory. At the same time signed languages’ coverage is normally congruent with that of spoken languages – and they are a tool for the hearing to communicate with the Deaf, learnt by teachers, nurses, clerks etc. Thanks to them one doesn’t have to learn a new grammar and idioms – it’s just enough to associate gestures to the spoken language’s words. Unfortunately for the Deaf they “sound” worse than an automated translation.

And the worse part is that they’re a source of the misconception that signing is yet another medium of encoding the same language, just like writing. Totally wrong! It’s only that the Hearers are too lazy to move their buttocks and learn yet another language.

Nevertheless, many a time did one force the Deaf to signed languages. Years 1880-1980 were an era of oralism when the hearing decided that the Deaf might be not dumb, so with a disciplined education they may be trained to lip-read and somehow talk. Today we can see it as something next to an ethnic cleansing. Yet, just as the Poles never dropped their language under the Partitions, thus the Deaf would always return to their native sign languages whenever free of Hearers’ control.
Today there exists much more evidence supporting the idea that sign languages (unlike the signed ones) are natural languages. Thanks to neuroimaging we’ve learnt that sign languages are processed in the very same part of the brain as spoken languages. Much help has been received from the CODA (Children Of Deaf Adults) who on one hand are hearing and on the other use a sign language as their mother tongue (they’re bilinguals). Interestingly, in sign languages, facial expression is a key component of the grammar; signing aphatics who couldn’t understand emotional expressions (laughter, weep, amazement, knitting one’s eyebrows) didn’t have problems reading face-expressed grammar, and conversely having one’s linguistic brain areas defunct didn’t cause problems with reading emotional face expressions.

There has also been research into sign language acquisition by infants. It proved that it also witnesses babbling (meaningless hand gestures) an other phases – the tempo of new words’ acquisition was similar to spoken languages, too. The only difference was that sign language acquisition started earlier because manual motor movements are easier for a baby than complex articulatory movements. 4-month signing babies can already express some of their needs (milk, nappy, more, kitten) while hearing babies their age can only cry. In 1990s this discovery boosted a popularity of so-called baby signs – parents were encouraged to teach their children simple signs which let them recognise baby’s needs better and develop a better communication. Currently it remains uncertain whether baby signs improve or hinder spoken tongue acquisition as scholars have delivered conflicting reports.

Why don’t you get to know local Deaf communities?! It’s not only a swag to learn a language which has no phonetics (traditionally speaking) and no writing – it’s also a bridge to fascinating acquaintances. But let this be preached by someone more entitled to it – Jenny Lu, the award-winner of’s last year “Get Inspired” contest.

(The author of this article can be found on Twitter, Google+, she also has a linguistic blog Kantan datta!)


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