Linguistics 001     23: Signed and Spoken Language

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 114 Deaf Sign Languages

As an illustration of lexical diversity, here is the word for "university" in French, Italian and American sign languages:

university (French SL)
university (Italian SL)
university (American SL)


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 who?"

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.

    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.

There are several others stories about "experiments" of this kind. From the Chronicle of Salimbene, thirteenth-century Italian Franciscan, writing about Frederick II of Hohenstaufen:

    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 blandishments.

In case of the 16th-century Mogul emperor Akbar the Great, the children raised in an environment "where no speech could be heard" grew up conversing in signs -- but the experimental setting may well have been one inhabited by deaf signers!

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 do.

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 SignStream project. 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

 Gallaudet University
 Information on Cochlear Implants
 Oral Deaf Education home page
 ASL Browser
 SL Dictionary on Psychological Terms (German)








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