Talking with Your Hands: Sign Language

Learn more about sign language and how it works. Language Direct can provide you with Sign Language Translator or Interpreter, and other translation and interpreting services.

Sign language uses body language and manual gestures instead of sound patterns to communicate. Sign languages are natural languages, just like any other languages. The two also share many similarities. Although sign languages do not share the same grammatical rules as spoken languages, they do have the same linguistic properties and language properties.

There are hundreds of existing sign languages in the world today. Just about every society that has a deaf community develops a sign language. Signing is also usefull for those who are able to hear, but cannot speak. One important thing to remember is that sign languages are not international, nor is there one sign language used world wide.


The Origin of Signing

The first written proof of the use of sign languages was in the 5th century BC. Socrates said: “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?” By the 19th century, manual alphabets using hand signals became popular.


Sign Languages and Their Linguistics


There are 9 features that are found in a language:

  1. Mode of communication
  2. Semanticity
  3. Pragmatic function
  4. Interchangeability
  5. Cultural Transmission
  6. Arbitrariness
  7. Discreteness
  8. Displacement
  9. Productivity

Sign languages also have classifiers, inflection and the use of topic- comment syntax. They also use and organize basic and meaningless units to create meaningful units.

They create words.

To make this clearer, the American Sign Language and the British Sign Language are really mutually unintelligible, even though the hearing people of the US and the UK speak the same language.


Sign Language: Its Grammar and Simultaneity

Sign languages use the features of vision, as well as tactile features in its grammar. Unlike spoken language, where one can only make and receive one sound at a time, sign language allows its “speakers” to use various expressions simultaneously. Other than manual signs, non- manual signs are also used such as facial expressions, posture and movements of the eyes, eye brows, etc. In ASL, these non- manual signs are part of the grammatical features of the language and are a requirement.


Sign Languages in the World

Today, there are about 200 sign languages that exist. One country can have several  different sign languages,  especially if many dialects of spoken languages that exist. There are at least 25 sign languages in Africa, 35 in the Americas, 40 in the Asia/ Pacific region, 45 in Europe, 18 in the Middle East,

The Danish SL and its progeny the Norwegian SL and the Icelandic SL are mutually intelligible with the Swedish SL. The Finnish SL and Portuguese SL derive from the Swedish SL. The German SL also gave birth to the Polish SL, and greatly influenced the Israeli SL.

Sign Languages can be categorized into three:

  • Deaf Sign Languages – These are the preferred languages of deaf communities. Some of the examples are listed above. They also include village sign languages, such as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, and deaf community sign languages.
  • Auxiliary Sign Languages – These are not native languages, but is a language system used in addition to spoken language. Some examples are Baby Sign, Tic Tac, Mudra and Contact Sign.
  • Signed Modes of Oral Languages – They are manually coded languages, and are used to bridge oral and sign languages. These include Fingerspelling and Cued Speech.


To finish off, here’s a lesson on questions and introductions in British Sign Language:



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