"A Brief Survey of the World's Signed Languages"


by Kevin M. Roddy, Kapi'olani Community College

In partial fulfillment of Deaf 101

December 9, 2008

 



The purpose of this paper is to 1) show the distribution of signed languages throughout the world; 2) give the latest estimates of speakers for these languges if available; and 3) showcase approximately 30 basic words in American, British, and Russian Sign Languages. Words on the list will include family terms; common nouns and verbs; and question words 'What,' 'Where,' 'Who,' 'When,' 'How,' and 'Why.' I am also using this research opportunity to improve my ability in making videos and captioning them.

Introduction

Sign language existed long before spoken language, according to Stokoe (2001) and others. The spoken languages used today incorporate a great deal of "non-verbal" communication and cues. Indexing, or pointing, is one such example. A person mayl point to a destination without using speech, rather than telling a person verbally "Where you want to go is directly behind you 100 meters, in a southerly direction." All language is driven by economy - how to convey the most amount of information with the least amount of work. Like signed languages, but perhaps not to the extent used in sign, spoken languages rely somewhat on facial grammar and voice intonation to convey emotion in a message. Dorothy Miles, one of the authors of British Sign Language: A Beginner's Guide, states "Some situations call for the use of gestures in preference to speech, for example, in moments of strong emotion, during ceremonies (including religious worship) for signalling in sport and certain occupations, and for purposes of secrecy and silence" (Miles 1988). Some hearing people use their hands a lot when they talk. It's a joke in the hearing world that Italians gesture excessively while speaking. Regardless of whether a language is spoken or signed, it makes sense to incorporate gesture, indexing (by pointing), and other non-verbal indicators. But it is still beyond the understanding of a more than a few that an entire language can be entirely visual. The oppression many deaf have felt over the millenia is beginning to wane as science and psychology continue to prove the effectiveness of sign language as a psycho-social necessity in the lives of deaf people. Arguments that sign languages "aren't real languages" hopefully are joining the realm of disproven arguments such as "the earth is flat."


There are hearing people who are very familiar with signed language: the children, siblings, husbands, wives, and friends of the deaf. The lives of the deaf and the hearing have, and will continue to be entwined in human history. Simply put? The deaf and hearing worlds cannot be separated. Hearing parents have deaf children; deaf parents have hearing children; hearing women fall in love and marry deaf men; deaf and hearing cousins play in the park; the list goes on. Deaf and hearing need to communicate.


"Audism," a form of discrimination based on the ability to hear, is to blame for many of the communications problems between deaf and hearing people. Hearing people expect the deaf to use the dominant spoken language of their region. They don't meet the deaf halfway on the language road - they expect the deaf to do whatever it takes to communicate with them in spoken language. Hearing people are unaware of the continuum of Hearing , Hard-of-Hearing, and Deaf in the world, and the great deal of diversity of ,people who claim alligence the Deaf community. Some deaf people whose loss is not as profound as others use speech and hearing aids. These people might have had very good teachers to help them along. Profoundly deaf people on the other end of the scale are not able to hear at all. Like many hearing local students, whose native language is Hawaiian Creole English, success in today's world for Hawaii's Deaf community means that its people must have facility in the dominant language of their region (like Standard American English in Hawaii) so they can work, go to school, get medical help when needed, and communicate with family, friends, co-workers, and fellow citizens. But they must also have sign language - the bicultural/bilingual approach.

Signed Languages of the World

Hearing people somehow assume that sign language is universal, and are quite surprised to find out their assumptions are wrong. While there are a few signed languages that have common vocabularys and are minimally intelligible with one another, many other signed languages are completely unintelligible when compared. An unspoken responsibility of deaf and hearing signers is to educate the hearing population on sign language. The first lession is usually this: Deafness knows no one populace or community. Deaf people are born into every single human community on Earth. It is unknown exactly how many cultures there are in the world - scientists cannot agree on what constitutes "culture" - is it ethnicity, religion, commonly-held traditions, language(s) exclusively, or a combination of one or more of these? Language and culture (however defined) are closely intertwined; in fact, both are threatened if one is threatened.


How many signed languages are there in the world? As with spoken language, we can only estimate. Meier (2008) believes that there are "perhaps 200 to 300 signed languages, but there has been no thorough survey done." The Ethnologue is a reliable print and online compilation on the world's languages. It is very popular with linguists worldwide as an authority on the world's languages. In the preface to the latest edition, the estimated number of world languages in 1971 was approximately 6800 languages (Ethnologue 2005). Of these, at least 121 are signed languages.


To show the diversity of signed languages around the world, I created a table below. In the table I listed each signed language appearing in the Ethnologue as follows:


Note: All data in this table has been taken from the Ethnologue. You may use any of the hyperlinks on this site to visit the page where the information is referenced, or you may access the site generally using this link: http://www.ethnologue.com



Signed Language and Location
Number of Speakers/
Year of Estimation

Interesting facts
1
Adamorobe Sign Language  [ads] (Ghana) 3400 (2003)
15% deafness in the population; one of the highest percentages in the world, caused by genetic recessive autosome. The village has been settled for 200 years. It is an indigenous deaf sign language, also used by many hearing people. Most users have no contact with Ghanaian Sign Language. All ages, evenly distributed.
2
Algerian Sign Language  [asp] (Algeria) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
3
American Sign Language  [ase] (USA) 100,000 to 500,000 primary users (1986 Gallaudet Univ.) out of nearly 2,000,000 profoundly deaf persons in the USA (1988) NO DATA AVAILABLE
4
Argentine Sign Language  [aed] (Argentina) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE NO DATA AVAILABLE
5
Armenian Sign Language  [aen] (Armenia) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE NO DATA AVAILABLE
6
Australian Sign Language  [asf] (Australia) 14,000 (1991)

Some signed interpretation in court, for college students, at important public events. Australian Signed English is distinct from Australian Sign Language. It is a manual system for English spelling, used by hearing people for communication with the deaf. It is used in teaching the deaf, and officially so in New South Wales.
7
Austrian Sign Language  [asq] (Austria) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
8
Bali Sign Language  [bqy] (Indonesia (Java and Bali)) 2,200 total - 50 deaf, 2150 Hearing people (1995)
Used by many hearing people
9
Bamako Sign Language  [bog] (Mali) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
10
Ban Khor Sign Language  [bfk] (Thailand) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
11
Belgian Sign Language  [bvs] (Belgium) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE

3 deaf schools in Brussels have trained about 30% of the deaf in Belgium. There are 26 deaf institutions. Sign language interpreters are required in court. There is sign language instruction for parents of deaf children. There is a committee on national sign language. Little research on the language. There have been schools for deaf people since 1825. Limited influence from Signed Dutch and Signed French, which are used some for intercommunication with hearing people.
12
Bolivian Sign Language  [bvl] (Bolivia) 350-400 (1988)

Based on American Sign Language with necessary changes for Spanish spelling. Some groups in La Paz and Santa Cruz use the same signs with some dialect signs from their own areas.
13
Brazilian Sign Language  [bzs] (Brazil) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE

The dialects appear to be inherently intelligible, although northern dialects above the Amazon show greater differences. Some relationship to North American and European sign languages. The fingerspelling used for proper names is similar to a European system. The first deaf school was begun in 1857 in Rio de Janeiro, then one in Porto Alegre. The deaf in São Paulo generally receive an oralist education.
14
British Sign Language  [bfi] (United Kingdom) 40,000 first-language users (1984), out of 909,000 deaf, of which the majority probably have some degree of sign language competence (1977).
NO DATA AVAILABLE
15
Bulgarian Sign Language  [bqn] (Bulgaria) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
16
Catalonian Sign Language  [csc] (Spain) 18,000 (1994)
NO DATA AVAILABLE
17
Chadian Sign Language  [cds] (Chad) 390 (1989)

Influences from American Sign Language. Some signs are traditional. Teachers were trained in Nigeria. Muslim, Christian.
18
Chiangmai Sign Language  [csd] (Thailand) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE

Still remembered by signers over 45 years old in Chiangmai. Younger signers use Modern Thai Sign Language.
19
Chilean Sign Language  [csg] (Chile) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
20
Chinese Sign Language  [csl] (China) 3,000,000 deaf persons in China (1986)

Shanghai Sign Language. There are several dialects, of which Shanghai is the most influential. Few signs of foreign origin. The varieties used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia may have changed.Developed since the late 1950s. There are also Chinese character signs. Others use home sign languages. The first deaf school was begun by missionary C. R. Mills and wife in 1887, but American Sign Language did not influence Chinese Sign Language.
21
Colombian Sign Language  [csn] (Colombia) 50,000 (1992)
some signs similar to sign languages aof El Salvador, Span, and the US
22
Costa Rican Sign Language  [csr] (Costa Rica) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
60% lexical similarity with ASL
23
Croatia Sign Language  [csq] (Croatia) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
24
Cuba Sign Language  [csf] (Cuba) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
25
Czech Sign Language  [cse] (Czech Republic) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
partially intelligible with French Sign Language
26
Danish Sign Language  [dsl] (Denmark) 3500 (1986)
Some signs related to French Sign Language; intelligible with Swedish and Norwegian Sign languages with 'moderate difficulty.'
27
Dominican Sign Language  [doq] (Dominican Republic) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
lexical similarity 85%-90% ASL
28
Dutch Sign Language  [dse] (Netherlands) 20,000 users (1986)/15,000 deaf, 1,500,000 HOH
5 varieties of DSL; elementary schools for the deaf since 1790. Developed from French Sign Language, with some features similar to ASL and British Sign Language
29
Ecuadorian Sign Language  [ecs] (Ecuador) 188,000 (1986)
NO DATA AVAILABLE
30
Egypt Sign Language  [esl] (Egypt) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
31
Estonian Sign Language  [eso] (Estonia) 4500 users from 1600 deaf and 20,000 HOH
2000 persons need regular help from interpreters - influences from Finnish and Russian sign languages
32
Ethiopian Sign Language  [eth] (Ethiopia) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
33
Finnish Sign Language  [fse] (Finland) 5000 (1986)
influence from Swedish Sign Language - not intelligible with Danish Sign Language
34
Finnish-Swedish Sign Language  [fss] (Finland) 150 (2001)
Private spheres only - users are older adults.
35
French Sign Language  [fsl] (France) 50,000-100,000 (1986)
first sign language in the western world to gain recognition as a language (1830). 1000 users of Marseilles Sign Language; 43% intelligibility with ASL
36
German Sign Language  [gsg] (Germany) 50,000 (1986)
similarity to French and other European sign languages
37
Ghanaian Sign Language  [gse] (Ghana) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
38
Greek Sign Language  [gss] (Greece) 42,600 (1986)
12,000 children, 30,000 adults
roots in American and French Sign Languages and indigenous languages
39
Guatemalan Sign Language  [gsm] (Guatemala) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
40
Guinean Sign Language  [gus] (Guinea) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
heavily influenced by or based on ASL and French Sign Language
41
Haiphong Sign Language  [haf] (Viet Nam) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
42
Hanoi Sign Language  [hab] (Viet Nam) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
43
Hausa Sign Language  [hsl] (Nigeria) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
44
Hawai'i Pidgin Sign Language  [hps] (USA) A few users out of about 6,000 profoundly deaf people in Hawaii (1987 Honolulu Star-Bulletin), 72,000 deaf or hard-of-hearing people in Hawaii (1998 Honolulu Advertiser) NO DATA AVAILABLE
45
Ho Chi Minh City Sign Language  [hos] (Viet Nam) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
46
Honduras Sign Language  [hds] (Honduras) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
47
Hungarian Sign Language  [hsh] (Hungary) 60,000 deaf (1999)

300,000 HOH use it as a second language

48
Icelandic Sign Language  [icl] (Iceland) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
Until 1910, Icelandic deaf sent to school in Denmark; ISL originally based on Danish SL but has changed markedly; manual alphabet.
49
Indian Sign Language  [ins] (India) 2,680,000 (2003)
deaf schools don't use ISL, but vocational ones do. British Sign Language influence in fingerspelling and some signs - "hardly understandable to American Signed English."
50
Indonesian Sign Language  [inl] (Indonesia (Java and Bali)) 2,000,000 (1993)
94 deaf schools use oral method - blend of Malaysian SL and indigenous signs.
51
Irish Sign Language  [isg] (Ireland) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
1816 British signs arrived; 1846 Irish signs developed in girls school; 1857 Irish signs brought to boy's school - informal male and female signing systems. Females learn the male system through dating and marriage
52
Israeli Sign Language  [isr] (Israel) 5000 (1986)
not derived nor influenced by other sign languages. First deaf school established in 1934; fingerspelling developed in 1976
53
Italian Sign Language  [ise] (Italy) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
partially intelligible with French Sign Language - not intelligible with ASL
54
Jamaican Country Sign Language  [jcs] (Jamaica) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
55
Japanese Sign Language  [jsl] (Japan) 317,000
95% of deaf understand JSL. 107 deaf schools. First deaf school in Kyoto in 1878. Pidgin Signed Japanese used in formal settings, lectures, speeches.
56
Jordanian Sign Language  [jos] (Jordan) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
57
Kenyan Sign Language  [xki] (Kenya) 200,000 deaf
32 schools; mainly unrelated to other sign languages. Schools established in 1961. Used in court cases involving deaf people.
58
Korean Sign Language  [kvk] (Korea, South) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
used in 1889. related to Japanese and Taiwanese sign languages; manual alphabet.
59
Laos Sign Language  [lso] (Laos) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
60
Latvian Sign Language  [lsl] (Latvia) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
61
Libyan Sign Language  [lbs] (Libya) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
62
Lithuanian Sign Language  [lls] (Lithuania) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
63
Lyons Sign Language  [lsg] (France) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
250 miles from Paris - difficult and little intelligibility of French SL
64
Madagascar Sign Language  [mzc] (Madagascar) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
Similar to Norwegian Sign Language
65
Malaysian Sign Language  [xml] (Malaysia (Peninsular)) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
66
Maltese Sign Language  [mdl] (Malta) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
67
Maritime Sign Language  [nsr] (Canada) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
based on British SL; nearly extinct
68
Martha's Vineyard Sign Language  [mre] (USA) EXTINCT
early language based on a regional SL from Weald, UK; French SL introduced in 1817; from 1692 to 1910 all hearing people on the Vinyard were bilingual.
69
Mexican Sign Language  [mfs] (Mexico) 87,000 to 100,000 monolingual users (1986)
1,300,000 deaf in Mexico
Lenguaje de Signos Mexicano does not follow Spanish grammar.
70
Moldova Sign Language  [vsi] (Moldova) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
71
Mongolian Sign Language  [msr] (Mongolia) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
different from Russian SL
72
Moroccan Sign Language  [xms] (Morocco) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
difficult to determine numbers; deaf women do not leave the home. Most deaf do not read, write or understand Arabic
73
Mozambican Sign Language  [mzy] (Mozambique) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
Not related or based on Portuguese SL
73
Namibian Sign Language  [nbs] (Namibia) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
75
Nepalese Sign Language  [nsp] (Nepal) 5743 (2001)
related to Indian and Pakistan SL
76
New Zealand Sign Language  [nzs] (New Zealand) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
first school established 1878; some common features with British Sign Language; manual alphabet.
77
Nicaraguan Sign Language  [ncs] (Nicaragua) 3,000 (1997)
unrelated to El Salvadoran, Costa Rican, or other SLs
78
Nigerian Sign Language  [nsi] (Nigeria) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
79
Norwegian Sign Language  [nsl] (Norway) 4,000 (1986)
used since 1815; first deaf school 1825, first deaf club 1878; manual alphabet
80
Old Kentish Sign Language  [okl] (United Kingdom) EXTINCT
the apparent ancestor of Martha's Vineyard SL
81
Pakistan Sign Language  [pks] (Pakistan) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
related to Nepalese SL; may be the same as Indian SL
82
Penang Sign Language  [psg] (Malaysia (Peninsular)) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
users also know Malaysian SL; deaf school started in 1954.
83
Persian Sign Language  [psc] (Iran) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
84
Peruvian Sign Language  [prl] (Peru) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
over 70 deaf schools, oralist method. SL in school different from what adults use outside.
85
Philippine Sign Language  [psp] (Philippines) 100,000 (1986)
reportedly very similar to ASL; total communication used in deaf schools; ASL is a second language
86
Polish Sign Language  [pso] (Poland) 50,000 deaf (1986)
not intelligible with ASL; used since 1889. Elementary schools for the deaf since 1817; manual alphabet.
87
Portuguese Sign Language  [psr] (Portugal) 8,000 (1986)
not derived from Portuguese; related to Swedish SL
88
Providencia Sign Language  [prz] (Colombia) 19 born deaf; known by most residents on the island (2500-3000) (1986)
used on Providencia Island off the coast of Nicaragua
89
Puerto Rican Sign Language  [psl] (Puerto Rico) 8,000-40,000 (1986)
signs introduced in 1907 by nuns; related to ASL
90
Quebec Sign Language  [fcs] (Canada) 50,000-60,000 (2000)
Langue de Signes Quebecoise (LSQ).  in Northern Quebec deaf use ASL and English; segregated deaf education where females use ASL/LSQ and males Signed french and LSQ. Rare for a child to learn LSQ and ASL
91
Rennellese Sign Language  [rsi] (Solomon Islands) 1 (1986)
EXTINCT - developed in 1915.
92
Romanian Sign Language  [rms] (Romania) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
93
Russian Sign Language  [rsl] (Russia (Europe)) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
Related to American and French SLs; originated in 1806; manual alphabet.
94
Salvadoran Sign Language  [esn] (El Salvador) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
different from French and Spanish SLs
95
Saudi Arabian Sign Language  [sdl] (Saudi Arabia) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
96
Selangor Sign Language  [kgi] (Malaysia (Peninsular)) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
American signs introduced in 1960; uses predominantly American signs in a mixture of English and Malay word order.
97
Sierra Leone Sign Language  [sgx] (Sierra Leone) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
98
Singapore Sign Language  [sls] (Singapore) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
99
Slovakian Sign Language  [svk] (Slovakia) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
100
South African Sign Language  [sfs] (South Africa) 12,000 (1986)
North British sign system used for deaf whites in English-speaking families. 1881 school established for Afrikaans-speakers using British SL
101
Spanish Sign Language  [ssp] (Spain) 102,000 (1994)
influences from American, French, and Mexican SLs
102
Sri Lankan Sign Language  [sqs] (Sri Lanka) 12,800 (1986)
several sign languages used by different schools; British English fingerspelling used.
103
Swedish Sign Language  [swl] (Sweden) 8,000 primary users (1986)
no origins from other sls byt SSL has influenced Portuguese and Finnish SLs; not uintelligible with Finnish SL; deaf considered bilingual minority
104
Swiss-French Sign Language  [ssr] (Switzerland) 1,000 (1986)
regional lexical variations in French areas tied to specific schools - local Swiss signs and imported French signs
105
Swiss-German Sign Language  [sgg] (Switzerland) 6,000 (1986)
regional lexical variations in German areas tied to specific schools
106
Swiss-Italian Sign Language  [slf] (Switzerland) 200 (1986)
NO DATA AVAILABLE
107
Taiwan Sign Language  [tss] (Taiwan) 82,558 (2001)
2 major dialects; from indigenous sign languages. Japanese occupation 1895-1946; 50% lexical similarity with Japanese SL; quite different from mainland Chinese SL
108
Tanzanian Sign Language  [tza] (Tanzania) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
language has been standardized and efforts are made to use it in deaf schools. Elementary schools for the deaf since 1963
109
Thai Sign Language  [tsq] (Thailand) 51,000 profoundly deaf
first school established in 1951; indigenous signs and ASL; manual alphabet
110
Tunisian Sign Language  [tse] (Tunisia) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
loans from French and Italian SLs
111
Turkish Sign Language  [tsm] (Turkey (Asia)) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
112
Ugandan Sign Language  [ugn] (Uganda) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
elementary schools since 1962; influences from Kenya and American SLs
113
Ukrainian Sign Language  [ukl] (Ukraine) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE

NO DATA AVAILABLE
114
Urubú-Kaapor Sign Language  [uks] (Brazil) 7 (1986)
500 second language users; monolingual use; 1/75 in the Maranhao population is deaf. Object-Subject-Verb order.
115
Uruguayan Sign Language  [ugy] (Uruguay) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
used since 1910; manual alphabet.
116
Venezuelan Sign Language  [vsl] (Venezuela) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
deaf schools since 1937; manual alphabet.
117
Yiddish Sign Language  [yds] (Israel) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
distinct from Israeli Sign Language.
118
Yucatec Maya Sign Language  [msd] (Mexico) 16 deaf / 500 in South Central Yucatan (1999)
all use sign in this region; not intelligible with Mexican SL
119
Yugoslavian Sign Language  [ysl] (Serbia and Montenegro) 30,000 from 60,000 deaf (1986)
origin from deaf schools in Austria and Hungary; also used in Slovenia
120
Zambian Sign Language  [zsl] (Zambia) NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
NO DATA AVAILABLE
121
Zimbabwe Sign Language  [zib] (Zimbabwe)
NO ESTIMATE AVAILABLE
elementary schools for the deaf since the 1940's; manual alphabet used to spell English related to that in South Africa

The distribution of signed languages is far and wide-. The deaf worldwide are connected to a language that is natural for them- a visual language. It makes sense that a signed language used in a particular place in the world has some connection to the spoken language of that same locale, just as American Sign Language and English does (e.g., lexical items, a local alphabet or system to indicate names and places, etc). However, like American Sign Language and English, one cannot conclude that the spoken and signed language have similar syntax, ways of indexing, etc. Science is continuing to prove that signed languages are just as diverse as spoken languages. In an article published in Science in 2000, Robert Meier makes the following observation on what he perceives to be the fundamental difference between signed and spoken languages regarding "typological diversity," which includes factors such as word order, sound structures, etc.

"Although signed languages differ in their vocabularies, in word order, in the presence of auxiliary-like elements, and in other ways, they seem to be much less diverse typologically than are spoken languages. The relative uniformity of signed languages, in contrast to the typological diversity of spoken languages, may be due to the differing resources available to sign and speech, as well as to the differing perceptual and articulatory constraints imposed by the visual-gestural and oral-aural channels."

However, the study of the world's signed languages is in its infancy. There are dozens and dozens of languages in which there is no data, meaning that there are many exciting discoveries to be made. However, spoken and signed languages do share a common fate - both are disappearing fast, due to economic factors, natural disasters that displace populations, and the spread of metropolitan languages such as English, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic. If languages are not identified, preserved and studied, the world will lose a great deal of knowledge on how humans live, how they view the world, and how human brains think and organize knowledge. The chance to understand the workings of language are greatly threatened if these languages disappear before they can be analyzed.

Scholarly Research on Signed Languages other than ASL

William Stokoe's ground-breaking work on American Sign Language began in the early 1960's. It was Stokoe that convinced many skeptics that a signed language (in this case, American Sign Language) was indeed a language and equivalent to spoken language in terms of complexity and flexibility. He opened the door for the scholarly study of signed languages. A brief survey of articles in CSA Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts found over 930 scholarly articles about sign languages other than ASL. For example, there are 40 articles on Spanish Sign Language, 70 on French Sign Language, 49 for Italian Sign Language, and 14 for Israeli Sign Language, along with many other articles.


In 2008, linguists Harry Van der Hulst and Rachel Channon of the University of Connecticut created a comparative sign language database. "Signtyp" is a respository of over 12,000 signs in the following sign languages: American, Dutch, Finnish, Korean, Japanese, and New Zealand. SignTyp's purpose is to show how sign languages differ visually and to draw some conclusions on why that is so (Omara-Otunno 2008). The database is scheduled to be released sometime soon.

A Sketch of Russian, British and American Sign Language vocabularies

Lastly, I wanted to example some sign language data from around the world. There are at least two very good American Sign Language dictionaries freely available over the Internet. How many other signed languages besides ASL have dictionaries on the Web? The ones I found for Russian, British, and French Sign Languages were not as comprehensive as the American ones. For comparison's sake, I selected 29 common words found in all human languages (these words are part of the "Swadesh list," a basic list of 200 core vocabulary words common to all languages used by linguists in research). I videotaped myself doing ASL examples below. I used two British Sign Language Web sites for BSL signs. For Russian Sign Language, I used a Web site on the Stanford University server (Russian sign language models were Oleg Ivanov, Irina Televki, and Aurel Televko). One of the British Sign Language sites was not true video, but rather a series of still images spliced together and displayed at a speed that resembles video. Though choppy, each sign is readable and understandable. The second BSL site I used is on the opposite end of the spectrum and uses computer simulated models to produce the signs.

Below are links to small videos signing each word. They have been tested on both PC and Macintosh and appear to work without problems. I have included a "Comments" field to compare and contrast signs. I learned a great deal from doing this exercise! :o)



Vocabulary word
American Sign Language(ASL)
British Sign Language(BSL)*
Russian Sign Language(RSL)
Comments
'grandfather' grandfather grandfather
grandfather
BSL 'Grandfather,' grandmother' -signs suggest ASL sign for 'year' or 'generation' combined with fingerspelling "D" for grandfather, "M" for grandmother; RSL 'grandfather' resembles ASL 'boy' tipping a hat but from the chin; 'grandmother' sign on the cheek is similar to ASL's placement of female signs
'grandmother' grandmother grandmother
grandmother
'father' father father
father
BSL 'father,' 'mother' - signs are fingerspelled into the palm
RSL 'father' begins at the forehead and descends to the chin - place of sign origin is smiliar to ASL; 'mother' sign location is similar to ASL, but the movement is not
'mother' mother mother
mother
'son' son son
son
BSL 'son,' 'daughter' - signs do not resemble ASL at all, nor do they use facial orientation as in ASL; RSL 'son,' 'daughter' - both very different from ASL and BSL
'daughter' daughter daughter
daughter
'brother' brother brother
brother
BSL 'brother,' 'sister' - signs do not resemble ASL at all, nor do they use facial orientation as in ASL (top half for male, bottom half for female)
RSL - 'brother,' 'sister' - somewhat similar to ASL in sign location
'sister' sister sister
     
 
'house' house house
house
BSL 'house' - iconic and very similar to ASL and RSL
'sun' sun sun
sun
BSL 'sun' - iconic and very similar to ASL and RSL
'moon' moon moon
moon
BSL 'moon' - iconic and very similar to ASL; RSL 'moon' - nearly identical to BSL, similar to ASL (when describing the moon's crescent in the waxing and waning cycles)
'cat' cat cat
cat
BSL 'cat' - iconic and very similar to ASL; RSL 'cat' - somewhat iconic, but miminally similar to ASL or BSL
'dog' dog dog
dog
BSL 'dog' - not similar to ASL; RSL 'dog' - somewhat iconic, minimally similar to BSL, not similar to ASL
'tree' tree unavailable
tree
RSL 'tree' - very similar to ASL - example from BSL unavailable
'day' day day
good morning
BSL 'day' - reverse sign of ASL 'night'; RSL 'day' - similar to BSL
'night' night night; also night
good evening
ASL 'night' - similar to ASL 'dark'; RSL 'night' - similar to BSL; somewhat iconic to the rising and setting of the sun
     
 
'have' have have
have
BSL 'have' (one-handed sign) somewhat similar to ASL 'take'; RSL 'have' - very dissimilar to ASL and BSL
'want' want want
want
BSL 'want' - not similar at all to ASL; RSL 'want' - very dissimilar to BSL or ASL
'do/make' do/make do
do or make
BSL 'do' - very similar to ASL; RSL 'do' - very similar to ASL and BSL
'drink' drink unavailable
drink
RSL indentical to ASL; BSL sign unavailable
'eat' eat eat
eat
BSL 'eat' - identical to both ASL and RSL
     
 
'who' who who
unavailable
BSL 'who' - similar to ASL 'only'
'what' what what
unavailable
BSL 'what' - similar to ASL 'where'
'when' when when
unavailable
BSL 'when' - not similar to ASL

'where'

where where
unavailable
BSL 'where' - similar to ASL 'what'
'why' why why
unavailable
BSL 'why' - similar to ASL 'guilty'
'how' how how
unavailable
BSL very dissimilar to ASL
         
'deaf' deaf deaf 'she is deaf' BSL 'deaf' - similar to an ASL regional variety for 'hearing'; RSL 'deaf' - very similar to ASL
'hearing' hearing hearing unavailable BSL 'hearing' - opposite similarity to ASL 'deaf'; sign for RSL unavailable


*BSL sources: "still pictures" at www.britishsignlanguage.com ; computerized human sign models at www.learnbsl.org

References


BritishSignLanguage.com. (n.d.). BritishSignLanguage.com: Guide to British Sign Language. Retrieved Dec. 08, 2008, from http://www.britishsignlanguage.com


Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version: The Ethnologue.


Kautz, J. (2004). Russian Sign Language Project. Retrieved Dec. 07, 2008, from http://www.stanford.edu/group/ll/data2/rsl/index27.html


Meier, R. (2000, June 16). Diminishing Diversity of Signed Languages. Science, 288(5473), p1965. Retrieved December 1, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.


Miles, D. (1988). British Sign Language: A Beginner's Guide. London: BBC Books.


Omara-Otunnu, E. (2008). Advance: Linguistics experts compile database to compare international sign languages. Retrieved Nov. 23, 2008, from http://www.advance.uconn.edu/2008/081006/08100609.htm


Stokoe, William C. (2001). Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press. Retrieved December 1, 21008 from http://library.kcc.hawaii.edu:2316/lib/kapcclib/Doc?id=10078151&ppg=8