Signed and spoken language
What is "sign language"?
Signed languages are visual-spatial languages used as the primary means
of communication by communities of deaf people in various parts of the
world. The version used in the U.S. and in anglophone Canada is called
ASL (American Sign Language).
ASL is completely different from British Sign Language, for historical
reasons: ASL developed out of a system brought to the U.S. in the 19th
century by a French teacher of the deaf. As a result, ASL has more lexical
affinities with the sign language spoken in France (and francophone Canada)
than it does with the sign language of Britain.
The Ethnologue index lists 103 Deaf
As an illustration of lexical diversity, here is the word for "university"
in French, Italian and American sign languages:
Sign languages also differ in their syntax and morphology.
American Sign Language (ASL) vs. signed English.
There are various systems for producing a more-or-less exact signed version
of a spoken language like English. None of these are much like true
sign language, except that they may share vocabulary, and none of them
are in very widespread use. Pidgin Signed English is said to be "what happens
when (English-speaking) adults try to learn ASL." PSE has variable influences
from English syntax, and lacks many of the grammatical and morphological
features of ASL, as well as many of the grammatical and morphological features
of English. However, children exposed to PSE are said to acquire ASL, or
something very much like it.
ASL and other sign languages have only been studied carefully by linguists
for about 30 years. In the beginning, one of the key issues was to overcome
"oralist" prejudices against sign, and to demonstrate its status as a "real"
language, as opposed to a form of mime or charades. As a result, much of
the work focused on issues of phonology-like aspects of ASL (such as its
usage of a fixed repertory of hand shapes and motion types), and on fairly
direct ASL analogues to morphology and syntax. More recently, linguists
have begun to explore some of the fascinating ways in which the visual-spatial
medium of sign is used to express linguistic structure in ways not available
in the auditory-acoustic medium of speech.
Here is a paper that explains how head tilt and eye
gaze are used to mark various agreement-like phenomena in ASL. Along the way,
this paper indicates some of the ways in which true ASL syntax differs from
English. For instance, if the WH-word in an ASL question is displaced, it must
be to the end of the clause rather than to the beginning: "John see yesterday
To read the paper, you'll have to download an Adobe Acrobat viewer, if your
browser does not already have a "plug-in" for it. If you also download (or already
have installed) a QuickTime viewer, you'll be able to see the paper's embedded
movies. This is worth the trouble, because it will give you a better idea of
what ASL is like.
The development of sign language
For a hundred years or more, there has been a debate
about deaf education between "oralists" and "manualists." As recently
as 20 years ago, there were many oralist schools for the deaf where signing
was prohibited (on the grounds that it lessened the motivation for deaf
children to learn to speak and to lip-read). Nevertheless, children in
these schools would communicate privately in signed languages, which often
were largely invented by the children at each school. Today, the debate
in the U.S. has swung so far back in the other direction that deaf activists
or other medical intervention, arguing that the culture of the deaf community
has progressed to the point where attempts to cure or even ameliorate the
condition of deafness are a kind of cultural genocide. This lengthy New
York Times article on the subject is well worth the time to read.
Like any other language, a sign language requires a language community
to develop or to be maintained. In many traditional societies, where
deaf people live out their lives in the small communities in which they
are born, there is not the "critical mass" of signers needed to create
a true sign language. Instead, each deaf person develops an ad hoc sort
of pidgin sign language to use with his or her relatives and neighbors.
In Nicaragua, this was the situation in place until about fifteen years ago,
when a residential school for the deaf was established in Managua. Within a
few years of the establishment of this school, a full-fledged Nicaraguan
sign language came into existence.
The experiment of Psammetichus
The spontaneous emergence of sign languages is reminiscent of the fabled
experiments of cruel rulers:
From the History of Herodotus, Book II:
Now the Egyptians, before the reign of their
king Psammetichus, believed themselves to be the most ancient of mankind.
Since Psammetichus, however, made an attempt to discover who were actually
the primitive race, they have been of opinion that while they surpass all
other nations, the Phrygians surpass them in antiquity. This king, finding
it impossible to make out by dint of inquiry what men were the most ancient,
contrived the following method of discovery:- He took two children of the
common sort, and gave them over to a herdsman to bring up at his folds,
strictly charging him to let no one utter a word in their presence, but
to keep them in a sequestered cottage, and from time to time introduce
goats to their apartment, see that they got their fill of milk, and in
all other respects look after them. His object herein was to know, after
the indistinct babblings of infancy were over, what word they would first
articulate. It happened as he had anticipated. The herdsman obeyed his
orders for two years, and at the end of that time, on his one day opening
the door of their room and going in, the children both ran up to him with
outstretched arms, and distinctly said "Becos." When this first happened
the herdsman took no notice; but afterwards when he observed, on coming
often to see after them, that the word was constantly in their mouths,
he informed his lord, and by his command brought the children into his
presence. Psammetichus then himself heard them say the word, upon which
he proceeded to make inquiry what people there was who called anything
"becos," and hereupon he learnt that "becos" was the Phrygian name for
bread. In consideration of this circumstance the Egyptians yielded their
claims, and admitted the greater antiquity of the Phrygians.
From the Chronicle of Salimbene, thirteenth-century
Italian Franciscan, writing about Frederick II of Hohenstaufen:
That these were the real facts I learnt at Memphis
from the priests of Vulcan. The Greeks, among other foolish tales, relate
that Psammetichus had the children brought up by women whose tongues he
had previously cut out; but the priests said their bringing up was such
as I have stated above. I got much other information also from conversation
with these priests while I was at Memphis, and I even went to Heliopolis
and to Thebes, expressly to try whether the priests of those places would
agree in their accounts with the priests at Memphis. The Heliopolitans
have the reputation of being the best skilled in history of all the Egyptians.
Like Psammetichus in Herodotus, he made linguistic
experiments on the vile bodies of hapless infants, bidding foster-mothers
and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the chidren, but in no wise to
prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would
speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or Greek, or Latin,
or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been
born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without
clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and
The spontaneous emergence
of sign languages in communities of deaf children shows how robust the human
instinct for language is, and how strongly it will fight to emerge even under
difficult circumstances. Of course it is foolish as well as cruel to suppose that
children deprived of linguistic contact would develop some "original" or "natural"
language. All languages, whether ancient or modern, are partly arbitrary systems
developed within a particular speech community.
In addition, early linguistic experience is essential for the development
of linguistic -- and to some extent cognitive -- competence at all. Thus
the results attributed to Frederick II are much more plausible than those
attributed to Psammetichus. During the key period of language (and cognitive)
development, between the ages of one and three or so, profoundly deaf children
simply cannot learn any language other than sign. Even at much later stages,
oral education is slow and painful at best, and does not give profoundly
deaf children an adequate basis for either linguistic or general cognitive
development. This has been one of the key arguments of the "manualist"
position in deaf education, though with the development of cochlear implants,
the force of the argument has shifted somewhat.
Aphasia in signers
Since the modality of input and output is so different in signed and spoken forms
of language, it is especially interesting that the correlations of neural damage
location and aphasic symptoms in speaking and signing patients seem to be essentially
the same. Deaf-from-birth signers suffer from sign-language versions of Broca's
and Wernicke's aphasia, as well as other sorts of aphasia, just as hearing people
Writing sign language
Attempts to devise writing systems for sign language have a long history,
with modern efforts going back at least to the work of William Stokoe at
Gallaudet in the 1960s. The goals of such systems include teaching, the
compilation of sign dictionaries, and especially the provision of a detailed
"phonetic" transcription for research purposes. These days, it seems that
video (including digital video) is reducing the pressures to develop sign
writing systems for education and dictionary-making. However, there are
several on-going efforts to develop IPA-like notations for research purposes,
including the Hamnosys
notation system from the University of Hamburg in Germany, and the American
The SignWriting project aims
at use as a writing system by ordinary signers as well as researchers.
Here is a short video of a German sign
(for "tiring") with its Hamnosys notation.
Some other links
on Cochlear Implants
Oral Deaf Education home page
ASL Dictionary Online
Dictionary on Psychological Terms (German)