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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language Policy and Planning for Sign Languages
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Although I do not have the space here to provide a comprehensive overview of what linguists now know about ASL and other natural sign languages (see, however, in particular Johnston & Schembri, 2007; Lillo-Martin, 1991; Meir & Sandler, 2008; Nakamura, 2006), a very brief discussion of some of the principal, and generally common, linguistic features of natural sign languages will be useful. Because the greatest amount of linguistic research to date has been concerned with ASL, this discussion will necessarily focus on ASL, although examples from other sign languages will be provided as appropriate.

Different Kinds of Signing

There are, broadly speaking, four different kinds of “signing”: the natural sign languages used by deaf people themselves in intragroup communication, which are unrelated to surrounding spoken languages; contact sign languages typically used by deaf and hearing people in intergroup communication; manual sign codes, which are efforts to represent spoken languages in a visual/manual format; and signed communication used by (and between) hearing people in certain situations. One useful way of thinking about these different kinds of signing is in terms of the diversity of signing and sign language. The diversity of sign languages actually refers to a number of different, and significant, kinds of diversity.

First, there are large numbers of sign languages that are natural sign languages used by deaf people in different settings around the world. Although these different natural sign languages share certain generic features (such as their gestural and visual nature, their use of space for linguistic purposes, etc.), and while some sign languages are genetically related to others, these languages are nevertheless distinctive languages in their own right. Many of these natural sign languages have been studied by linguists; among these are not only ASL, but also Australian Sign Language, British Sign Language, Danish Sign Language, Dutch Sign Language, French Sign Language, German Sign Language, Hausa Sign Language, Hong Kong Sign Language, Indo-Pakistani Sign Language, Israeli Sign Language, Italian Sign Language, Kenyan Sign Language, Modern Thai Sign Language, Russian Sign Language, South African Sign Language, Swedish Sign Language, Taiwanese Sign Language, and Venezuelan Sign Language, and this is far from an exhaustive list. Indeed, although impressive in its own right, this list is but the proverbial tip of the iceberg, since most natural sign languages (like most spoken languages) remain unstudied. Skutnabb-Kangas suggests that “there probably are something between 6,500 and 10,000 spoken (oral) languages in the world, and a number of sign languages which can be equally large” (2000, p. 30). This is likely a gross overgeneralization, because many spoken languages are far too small to have a concomitant deaf community using its own sign language, but the underlying point is well taken: there is a huge number of natural sign languages in the world, of many of which we are not even aware.

The number of natural sign languages is but one sense in which we can talk about sign language diversity (see Reagan, 2007; Schermer, 2004). The second way in which diversity enters the picture is with respect to the diversity present within particular natural sign languages. In the case of ASL, for instance, we know that there is not only extensive lexical diversity related to region of the country, but also diversity related to age, gender, and ethnicity (see Lucas, 1989, 1995, 1996; Lucas, Bayley, & Valli, 2001, 2003; McCaskill et al., in press). A far more extreme case is provided by South African Sign Language (SASL). SASL, at least in part as a consequence of the social and educational policies of the apartheid regime (see Penn & Reagan, 2001), has been characterized by extensive lexical variation coupled with an underlying syntactic unity. Indeed, the situation is so complex that sign language linguists concerned with SASL have engaged in arguments about whether it is a single sign language or a related collection of different sign languages (see Aarons & Akach, 1998, 2002; Branson & Miller, 2002, pp. 244–45; Heap & Morgans, 2006; Morgan, 2008; Reagan, 2004).

The third sort of diversity that plays a role in understanding sign language, and one to which I have already alluded, is not so much a diversity in terms of sign language as it is a diversity with respect to what the term signing actually means. The distinction between sign language and signing is a significant one. Up to this point, I have been concerned only with natural sign languages, the sign languages that have emerged and are used in communities of deaf people for intragroup communication. Deaf people, however, do not live apart from hearing people; rather, they are integrated into the hearing world in a number of ways and on a number of different levels. The vast majority of deaf people have hearing parents, and the vast majority of deaf people will have hearing children. In addition, deaf people need to have access to at least some hearing people in order to function socially and economically. Although the children of deaf people may well learn their parents’ sign language as a native language, most parents of deaf children and other hearing people who are in contact with deaf people will generally not learn a natural sign language. Instead, they will learn to sign using a contact sign language—that is, a sign language that has elements of both the natural sign language and the surrounding spoken language (see Lucas & Valli, 1989, 1991, 1992). Such contact languages, originally labeled pidgin sign, are in fact the primary kind of sign language used in many hearing–deaf communicative interchanges. These contact languages, like natural sign languages, are the result of normal linguistic development, and their emergence parallels that of spoken contact languages.

Next, manual sign codes were developed in educational settings as a way of providing deaf children with access to spoken language (the development of such manual sign codes will be discussed in detail in Chapter 4). These are simply efforts to represent a spoken language in a gestural/visual modality— comparable, really, to writing a spoken language (see Figure 1.1).

Finally, there is signed communication that has been used by hearing people, not to communicate with deaf people, but rather to communicate with other hearing people in certain settings. Examples include the kinds of signing used by the Plains Indians in North America (see Davis, 2006, 2007, in press), the signing used in monasteries (both historically, from at least the tenth century, and in some contemplative orders such as the Benedictine, Cistercian, Franciscan, and Trappist orders, even today; see Barakat, 1975a, 1975b; Barley, 1974; Kendon, 1990; Nitschke, 1997; Umiker-Sebeok & Sebeok, 1987), and so on. Although different in both nature and purpose from other kinds of signing, and more accurately described as gestural lexicons than as sign languages, there is no doubt that all these are also kinds of signed communication.


The extraordinary impact of ASL on American deaf culture is just one example of the complex interaction between language and identity. Indeed, in discussions about this relationship deaf people stand out as an exceptionally complicated and intriguing case (Bragg, 2001; Goodstein, 2006; Harris, 1995; Monaghan, Schmaling, Nakamura, & Turner, 2003; Neisser, 1983; Padden, 1980; Parasnis, 1988; Reagan, 2002c). As Charlotte Baker observes, “Deaf people do not necessarily identify with the hearing world and increasingly regard the hearing world as a different language community. Rather than allowing themselves to be defined by the majority hearing group, Deaf people are progressively expressing and valuing their own self-constructed identity” (Baker, 1999, p. 129). Since the 1970s, social science scholars have recognized that many individuals

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