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A sign language (also signed language) is a language which uses manual communication, body language and lip patterns instead of sound to convey meaning—simultaneously combining hand shapes, orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to express fluidly a speaker's thoughts. Sign languages commonly develop in deaf communities, which can include interpreters and friends and families of deaf people as well as people who are deaf or hard of hearing themselves.
As is the case in spoken language, sign language differs from one region to another. However, when people using different signed languages meet, communication is significantly easier than when people of different spoken languages meet. Sign language, in this respect, gives access to an international deaf community. Sign language is however not universal, and many different sign languages exist that are mostly mutually unintelligible.
Wherever communities of deaf people exist, sign languages develop, in fact their complex spatial grammars are markedly different than spoken language. In many cases, various signed "modes" of spoken languages have been developed, such as Signed English and Warlpiri Sign Language. Hundreds of sign languages are in use around the world and are at the core of local Deaf cultures. Some sign languages have obtained some form of legal recognition, while others have no status at all.Exemplary for the mature status of sign languages is the growing body of sign language poetry, and other stage performances. The poetic mechanisms available to signing poets are not all available to a speaking poet. This offers new, exciting ways for poems to reach and move the audience.
History of sign language
The recorded history of sign language in Western society extends from the 16th century. In 1755, Abbé de l'Épée founded the first public school for deaf children in Paris; Laurent Clerc was arguably its most famous graduate. He went to the United States with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet to found the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Gallaudet's son, Edward Miner Gallaudet founded the first college for the deaf in 1857, which in 1864 became Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, the only liberal arts university for the deaf in the world.
Generally, each spoken language has a sign language counterpart in as much as each linguistic population will contain Deaf members who will generate a sign language. In much the same way that geographical or cultural forces will isolate populations and lead to the generation of different and distinct spoken languages, the same forces operate on signed languages and so they tend to maintain their identities through time in roughly the same areas of influence as the local spoken languages. This occurs even though sign languages have no relation to the spoken languages of the lands in which they arise. There are notable exceptions to this pattern, however, as some geographic regions sharing a spoken language have multiple, unrelated signed languages. Variations within a 'national' sign language can usually be correlated to the geographic location of residential schools for the deaf.
International Sign, formerly known as Gestuno, is used mainly at international Deaf events such as the Deaflympics and meetings of the World Federation of the Deaf. Recent studies claim that while International Sign is a kind of a pidgin, they conclude that it is more complex than a typical pidgin and indeed is more like a full signed language.
Linguistics of sign
In linguistic terms, sign languages are as rich and complex as any oral language, despite the common misconception that they are not "real languages". Professional linguists have studied many sign languages and found them to have every linguistic component required to be classed as true languages.
Sign languages are not pantomime - in other words, signs are largely arbitrary and have no necessary visual relationship to their referent, much as most spoken language is not onomatopoeic. Nor are they a visual rendition of an oral language. They have complex grammars of their own, and can be used to discuss any topic, from the simple and concrete to the lofty and abstract.
Sign languages, like oral languages, organize elementary, meaningless units (phonemes; once called cheremes in the case of sign languages) into meaningful semantic units. The elements of a sign are Handshape (or Handform), Orientation (or Palm Orientation), Location (or Place of Articulation), Movement, and Non-manual markers (or Facial Expression), summarised in the acronym HOLME.
Common linguistic features of deaf sign languages are extensive use of classifiers, a high degree of inflection, and a topic-comment syntax. Many unique linguistic features emerge from sign languages' ability to produce meaning in different parts of the visual field simultaneously. For example, the recipient of a signed message can read meanings carried by the hands, the facial expression and the body posture in the same moment. This is in contrast to oral languages, where the sounds that comprise words are mostly sequential (tone being an exception).
Sign languages' relationships with oral languages
A common misconception is that sign languages are somehow dependent on oral languages, that is, that they are oral language spelled out in gesture, or that they were invented by hearing people. Hearing teachers of deaf schools, such as Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, are often incorrectly referred to as inventors of sign language.
The manual alphabet is used in sign languages, mostly for proper names and technical or specialised vocabulary. The use of fingerspelling was once taken as evidence that sign languages are simplified versions of oral languages, but in fact it is merely one tool among many. Fingerspelling can sometimes be a source of new signs, which are called lexicalized signs.
On the whole, deaf sign languages are independent of oral languages and follow their own paths of development. For example, British Sign Language and American Sign Language are quite different and mutually unintelligible, even though the hearing people of Britain and America share the same oral language.
Similarly, countries which use a single oral language throughout may have two or more sign languages; whereas an area that contains more than one oral language might use only one sign language.
Use of signs in hearing communities
Gesture is a typical component of spoken languages. More elaborate systems of manual communication have developed in situations where speech is not practical or permitted, such as cloistered religious communities, scuba diving, television recording studios, loud workplaces, stock exchanges, in baseball, while hunting (by groups such as the Kalahari bushmen), or in the game Charades. In Rugby Union the Referee uses a limited but defined set of signs to communicate his/her decisions to the spectators. Recently, there has been a movement to teach and encourage the use of sign language with toddlers before they learn to talk and with non-deaf or hard-of-hearing children with other causes of speech impairment or delay. This is typically referred to as Baby Sign.
On occasion, where the prevalence of deaf people is high enough, a deaf sign language has been taken up by an entire local community. Famous examples of this include Martha's Vineyard Sign Language in the USA, Kata Kolok in a village in Bali, Adamorobe Sign Language in Ghana and Yucatec Maya sign language in Mexico. In such communities deaf people are not socially disadvantaged.
Many Australian Aboriginal sign languages arose in a context of extensive speech taboos, such as during mourning and initiation rites. They are or were especially highly developed among the Warlpiri, Warumungu, Dieri, Kaytetye, Arrernte, Warlmanpa, and are based on their respective spoken languages.
A pidgin sign language arose among tribes of American Indians in the Great Plains region of North America (see Plains Indian Sign Language). It was used to communicate among tribes with different spoken languages. There are especially users today among the Crow, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Unlike other sign languages developed by hearing people, it shares the spatial grammar of deaf sign languages.
Spatial grammar and simultaneity
Sign languages exploit the unique features of the visual medium. Oral language is linear. Only one sound can be made or received at a time. Sign language, on the other hand, is visual; hence a whole scene can be taken in at once. Information can be loaded into several channels and expressed simultaneously. As an illustration, in English one could utter the phrase, "I drove here". To add information about the drive, one would have to make a longer phrase or even add a second, such as, "I drove here along a winding road," or "I drove here. It was a nice drive." However, in American Sign Language, information about the shape of the road or the pleasing nature of the drive can be conveyed simultaneously with the verb 'drive' by inflecting the motion of the hand, or by taking advantage of non-manual signals such as body posture and facial expression, at the same time that the verb 'drive' is being signed. Therefore, whereas in English the phrase "I drove here and it was very pleasant" is longer than "I drove here," in American Sign Language the two may be the same length.
In fact, in terms of syntax, ASL shares more with spoken Japanese than it does with English.(Karen Nakamura,1995)
Written forms of sign languages
Sign language differs from oral language in its relation to writing. The phonemic systems of oral languages are primarily sequential: that is, the majority of phonemes are produced in a sequence one after another, although many languages also have non-sequential aspects such as tone. As a consequence, traditional phonemic writing systems are also sequential, with at best diacritics for non-sequential aspects such as stress and tone.
Sign languages have a higher non-sequential component, with many "phonemes" produced simultaneously. For example, signs may involve fingers, hands, and face moving simultaneously, or the two hands moving in different directions. Traditional writing systems are not designed to deal with this level of complexity.
Partially because of this, sign languages are not often written. Most deaf signers read and write the oral language of their country. However, there have been several attempts at developing scripts for sign language. These have included both "phonetic" systems, such as HamNoSys (the Hamburg Notational System) and SignWriting, which can be used for any sign language, and "phonemic" systems such as the one used by William Stokoe in his 1965 Dictionary of American Sign Language, which are designed for a specific language.
These systems are based on iconic symbols. Some, such as SignWriting and HamNoSys, are pictographic, being conventionalized pictures of the hands, face, and body; others, such as the Stokoe notation, are more iconic. Stokoe used letters of the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals to indicate the handshapes used in fingerspelling, such as 'A' for a closed fist, 'B' for a flat hand, and '5' for a spread hand; but non-alphabetic symbols for location and movement, such as '' for the trunk of the body, '×' for contact, and '^' for an upward movement.
SignWriting, being pictographic, is able to represent simultaneous elements in a single sign. The Stokoe notation, on the other hand, is sequential, with a conventionalized order of a symbol for the location of the sign, then one for the hand shape, and finally one (or more) for the movement. The orientation of the hand is indicated with an optional diacritic before the hand shape. When two movements occur simultaneously, they are written one atop the other; when sequential, they are written one after the other. Neither the Stokoe nor HamNoSys scripts are designed to represent facial expressions or non-manual movements, both of which SignWriting accommodates easily, although this is being gradually corrected in HamNoSys.
Sign systems are sometimes developed within a single family. For instance, when hearing parents with no sign language skills have a deaf child, an informal system of signs will naturally develop, unless repressed by the parents. The term for these mini-languages is home sign (sometimes homesign or kitchen sign).
Home sign arises due to the absence of any other way to communicate. Within the span of a single lifetime and without the support or feedback of a community, the child is forced to invent signals to facilitate the meeting of his or her communication needs. Although this kind of system is grossly inadequate for the intellectual development of a child and it comes nowhere near meeting the standards linguists use to describe a complete language, it is a common occurrence. No type of Home Sign is recognized as an official language.
In the academic realm, if a deaf student has a strong foundation in American Sign Language, his/her ability to develop English literacy skills improves. Colleges now recognize that it is possible for many deaf students to be literate in both languages and that they need to work with knowledgeable and skilled professionals in order to do so. Research has shown that mastery in language, and specifically in American Sign Language yields many benefits. One benefit is that the child is instilled with a sense of cultural identity, which enables them to bond with other deaf individuals. This then leads to greater self-esteem and a curiosity of the world, both of which will enrich the student academically and socially.
- ↑ Canlas, Loida (2006-07-10). Laurent Clerc: Apostle to the Deaf People of the New World. Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center at Gallaudet University. Retrieved on 2007-01-06.
- Baby sign (teaching infants sign language before they have the ability to speak)
- Body language
- Chinese number gestures
- Legal recognition of sign languages (status per country/region)
- List of sign languages
- Intercultural competence
- Metacommunicative competence
- Nonverbal communication
- Sign language glove
- ABC Slider Learn ASL fingerspelling fast and easy using this free tool.
- ASL Lesson Plans Free online lessons, ASL dictionary, and lots of resources.
- ASL Browser (video of thousands of ASL signs)
- ASL Fingerspelling Online Practice Tool Test and improve your receptive fingerspelling skills.
- ASL Pro completely free online ASL educational resource website featuring over 11000 ASL Signs.
- British Sign Language Resources and information. Also Online Course and CDROM.
- BSL animated dictionary including mathematics in BSL
- BSL See Hear information page at the BBC
- BSL signing services for broadcast and various other media, part of ITV
- BSL video clips at the RNID
- Color of Language Sign Language Info and Resources (non-profit)
- Deaf 24/7 British Sign Language and deafness related information especially in United Kingdom.
- Deaf Cinema List Films in ASL and other sign languages
- A DeafWiki free-content encyclopedia of deaf and hard hearing
- Dictionary of the Finnish Sign Language - Suomalaisen viittomakielen perussanakirja
- Dictionary of the Flemish Sign Language - Woordenboek Vlaamse Gebarentaal
- Dictionary of Sign A wiki style user compiled dictionary of sign language (Various Countries)
- Dictionary of Hungarian Sign Language (with English Translation)
- Discover a Hobby: Free Online guide for learning Sign Language
- Handspeak sign Language dictionary and more
- List Serv for Sign Language Linguistics
- The MUSSLAP Project Multimodal Human Speech and Sign Language Processing for Human-Machine Communication.
- Plains Indian Sign Language
- Publications of the American Sign Language Linguistics Research Project
- Publications by Adam Kendon (field data, research techniques and theory of gesture and sign languages)
- Sign Simplified
- Uses of Sign Language
- Why Learn Sign Language
- Sign language among North American Indians compared with that among other peoples and deaf-mutes, by Garrick Mallery from Project Gutenberg. A first annual report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1879-1880
- Branson, J., D. Miller, & I G. Marsaja. (1996). "Everyone here speaks sign language, too: a deaf village in Bali, Indonesia." In: C. Lucas (ed.): Multicultural aspects of sociolinguistics in deaf communities. Washington, Gallaudet University Press, pp. 39-5
- Emmorey, Karen; & Lane, Harlan L. (Eds.). (2000). The signs of language revisited: An anthology to honor Ursula Bellugi and Edward Klima. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-3246-7.
- Groce, Nora E. (1988). Everyone here spoke sign language: Hereditary deafness on Martha's Vineyard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-27041-X.
- Kendon, Adam. (1988). Sign Languages of Aboriginal Australia: Cultural, Semiotic and Communicative Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Klima, Edward S.; & Bellugi, Ursula. (1979). The signs of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-80795-2.
- Krzywkowska, Grazyna (2006). "Przede wszystkim komunikacja", an article about a dictionary of Hungarian sign language on the internet, in Polish.
- Lane, Harlan L. (Ed.). (1984). The Deaf experience: Classics in language and education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-19460-8.
- Lane, Harlan L. (1984). When the mind hears: A history of the deaf. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-50878-5.
- Padden, Carol; & Humphries, Tom. (1988). Deaf in America: Voices from a culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-19423-3.
- Poizner, Howard; Klima, Edward S.; & Bellugi, Ursula. (1987). What the hands reveal about the brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Sacks, Oliver W. (1989). Seeing voices: A journey into the land of the deaf. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-06083-0.
- Sandler, Wendy; & Lillo-Martin, Diane. (2001). Natural sign languages. In M. Aronoff & J. Rees-Miller (Eds.), Handbook of linguistics (pp. 533-562). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-20497-0.
- Stiles-Davis, Joan; Kritchevsky, Mark; & Bellugi, Ursula (Eds.). (1988). Spatial cognition: Brain bases and development. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-0046-8; ISBN 0-8058-0078-6.
- Stokoe, William C. (1960). Sign language structure: An outline of the visual communication systems of the American deaf. Studies in linguistics: Occasional papers (No. 8). Buffalo: Dept. of Anthropology and Linguistics, University of Buffalo.ar:لغة إشارة
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