Although most hearing impaired adults and children in the US, Europe and many other countries around the world are oral individuals obtaining great benefit from their hearing instruments for everyday communication. There are, however, a small percentage of individuals that use sign language daily for their communicative needs. Living within the United States it would seem that American Sign Language (ASL) is the main language of the deaf around the world. While one of the major forms of sign language, it is by far the universal language signed in all parts of the planet.
The definition of sign language is any means of communication through bodily movements, especially of the hands and arms, used when spoken communication is impossible or not desirable. The practice of signing is probably older than speech. Sign language may be as coarsely expressed as mere grimaces, shrugs, or pointing; or it may employ a delicately nuanced combination of coded manual signals reinforced by facial expression and perhaps augmented by words spelled out in a manual alphabet. Wherever vocal communication is impossible, as between speakers of mutually unintelligible languages or when one or more would-be communicators is deaf, sign language can be used to bridge the gap.
One of the earliest written records of a sign language is from the fifth century BC, in Plato‘s Cratylus, where Socrates says: “If we hadn’t a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn’t we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present?” While Americans suggest that sign language began in the streets of Paris in the 1750s and the observations of Michel de l’Epee, there were numerous attempts, printed alphabets, and signing materials before then by Pedro Ponce de Leon (1520-1584), who is said to have developed the first manual alphabet. It was refined by Juan Pablo Bonet (1620), George Delgarmo (1680) and many others that finally by 1720 the British Manual Alphabet was pretty much in its present form. Thus, 30 years prior to the Paris discovery, there was successful manual communication. Of course, it is also history that de L’Epee published his manual alphabet in the 18th century that has survived basically unchanged in France and North America until the present time. In 1755, he founded the first school for deaf children in Paris; Laurent Clerc was arguably its most famous graduate. Clerc went to the United States with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet to found the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. This move popularized the use of the Paris sign language system in North America and the system brought by Laurent Clerc became the American Sign Language (ASL).
While ASL is used in many places, it is not universal. It is used primarily in North America, Central Africa, West Africa, Bolivia, and a few other places. Sign languages tend to be regional and very specific to certain areas. Gallaudet University offers a full list of countries around the world and the sign language system used. It is interesting that these languages developed side by side with the spoken language in most places but are not necessarily related to them as there are different grammatical structures. The World Mime Organization (2017) offers the following list of the various languages and where they are signed:
- British Sign Language (BSR), Australian Sign Language, and New Zealand Sign Language are referred to as a language called BANZSL. Maritime Sign Language and South African Sign Language, all of which are related to the original British Sign Language as these countries are former British Colonies.
- Scandinavian sign languages such as Danish Sign Language and its descendants Norwegian Sign Language , Icelandic Sign Language are very close and mutually intelligible with Swedish Sign Language. Sign language in Finland (Finnish Sign Language) and Portugal (Portuguese Sign Language) are both derived from the Swedish Sign Language. These do, however, have a mixture of local pidgin that is also intelligible to those using Swedish SL. The Danish SL and Norwegian SL and Icelandic SL are highly influenced by the French system and Swedish SL, Finnish SL, and Portuguese SL are closely related to British Sign Language.
- The Japanese Sign Language Family includes Japanese Sign Language, Taiwanese Sign Language and Korean Sign Language there are no difficulties communicating from one of these languages to another.
- As one of the originals, the French Sign Language family includes quite a number of different regions. Since it was an original many different sign languages emerged from French Sign Language (LSF), or are the result of language contact between local community sign languages and the French Family. These include: French Sign Language, Italian Sign Language, Quebec Sign Language, American Sign Language, Irish Sign Language, Russian Sign Language,Dutch Sign Language, Spanish Sign Language, Mexican Sign Language, Brazilian Sign Language (LIBRAS), Catalan Sign Language, Austrian Sign Language (along with its similar Hungarian Sign Language and its close relative Czech Sign Language) and others.
- There are also sign languages that have been heavily influenced by American Sign Language (ASL), or are regional varieties of ASL, often the Bolivian Sign Language is considered a dialect of ASL. Thai Sign Language is a mixed language derived from American Sign Language as well as the native sign languages of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. In many circles, these are also considered to be part of the ASL family. Others possibly influenced by ASL include Ugandan Sign Language, Kenyan Sign Language, Philippine Sign Language and Malaysian Sign Language.
- In Germany the German Sign Language (DGS) was a parent language to the Polish Sign Language. Since many of Israelis have a cultural history with Germany, the German SL has greatly influenced Israeli Sign Language, It is uncertain, however if the Israeli SL comes from the German SL or from Austrian Sign Language, part of the French family.
- Lyons Sign Language may be the source of Flemish Sign LanguageÂ (VGT) though this is unclear.
- The sign languages of Russia, Moldova and Ukraine are reported to share a high degree of lexical similarity and may be dialects of one language, or distinctly related languages. The same report suggested a “cluster” of sign languages centered around Czech Sign Language, Hungarian Sign Language and Slovak Sign Language. This group may also include Romanian, Bulgarian, and Polish sign languages.
- Sign languages of Arabic origin such as Jordanian Sign Language , as well as the sign languages of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq (and possibly Saudi Arabia) may be part of a sprachbund or a group of languages that have common features resulting from geographical proximity and language contact, additionallythey could also be dialect of a larger Eastern Arabic Sign Language.
- Known isolates or sign languages that are not related to others include Nicaraguan Sign Language, Kata Kolok, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, and Providence Island Sign Language.
Whittman, H. (1991). Classification linguistique des langues sign. Revue qucoise de linguistique thorique et applique, 10:1, 215.
World Mime Organization (2017). Sign Language. Retrieved June 6, 2017.