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1.7: Signed languages

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    1.7.1: From 2.10 Classifying Signs, in Anderson's Essentials of Linguistics


    Video Script

    In this chapter we’ve talked about how the sounds of spoken languages are organized: we classify consonants according to their place & manner of articulation and their voicing, and we classify vowels according to their tongue position and whether the lips are rounded. That’s a pretty tidy system for the segments of spoken languages, which are produced with the mouth (and the articulators and the larynx and the lungs), and perceived with the ears. We haven’t talked yet about signed languages, which are produced with the hands and arms and (usually) perceived with the eyes. It turns out that, just like consonants and vowels, the signs in signed languages can be classified according to how they’re produced, along five parameters. Before we talk about the signs themselves, let’s talk a bit more about signed languages in general.

    It might be that when you hear the phrase “sign language”, you think of American Sign Language, or ASL, which is the signed language used most widely in North America. But ASL is just one of many signed languages in the world. There’s BSL, or British Sign Language, and LSQ, Langue des signes québecoise, Auslan, and many others. These languages are not mutually intelligible — in other words, users of BSL don’t necessarily understand ASL and vice versa. But all sign languages share some properties with each other, and they also share properties with spoken languages, which we’ll examine later in this book.

    You should know that not everyone who uses a sign language is deaf — some hearing children acquire sign natively if their parents or other people in their household sign. And many hearing people choose to learn a signed language in addition to their spoken language, the same way people might choose to learn Spanish or Korean. The other piece of the story is that not everyone who’s deaf uses a sign language, because of stigma or because of language deprivation. When the word deaf is spelled with a lower-case ‘d’, it’s the medical term for people who have little or no hearing. The word Deaf with an upper-case ‘D’ is used by people who participate in Deaf culture. Deaf culture includes using signed languages, and usually does not perceive deafness as an impairment.

    This idea that deafness is not a defect can be quite radical in our ableist society where disability is often stigmatized. Oralism is the name for the attitude that says that speech is better than sign. Many parents, teachers, and even doctors believe that it’s more important for deaf people to learn to speak than to sign. This stigmatizing attitude toward signed languages means that it’s quite common for children who are born deaf not to have access to any language during those vital first few years of life. The evidence shows that deaf children who are exposed to sign from an early age have better outcomes than deaf children who only have access to speech, relying on hearing aids and cochlear implants.

    The stigma towards signed languages is based on faulty assumptions, from attitudes that believe that signed languages aren’t “real” or full languages. But the tools of linguistics reveal that signed languages are just as complex as spoken languages; they have phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. Furthermore, neural imaging has revealed that users of sign languages recruit the same areas of the brain for producing and understanding language as users of spoken languages do.

    So since we’ve paid attention to how linguists classify the sounds of spoken languages, let’s look at how the signs of signed languages can be classified. First, I need to point out that when we talk about classifying signs, we’re looking at a different level of representation from speech sounds: individual signs correspond to words, not to segments like consonants or vowels. But like consonants and vowels, each individual sign includes multiple parameters. The five parameters that make up a sign are location, movement, handshape, orientation, and non-manual markers. Each of these parameters can vary independently of the others. Let’s look at them more closely.

    Location has to do with where the signer articulates the sign, relative to their body. In ASL, or American Sign Language, almost all signs are articulated above the waist. The two ASL signs for ONION and APPLE differ in their location: the sign for ONION is articulated next to the eyes, while the sign for APPLE is at the mouth.

    The movement parameter refers to how the hands and fingers move, and what path they take. Compare the ASL signs for CAN and SHOES. In both signs, the hands are in the same shape and the same location, but their movement differs. In the sign for CAN, the fists move downward parallel to each other, while in the sign for SHOES, the signer brings the two fists together at the edges.

    The position of the hands and fingers is called handshape. When I say the position of the hands and fingers, I don’t mean where on the body — that’s location — but how is the signer configuring them. Let’s look back at the sign for APPLE, which is articulated with a knuckle twisting beside the mouth. Now look at the sign for CANDY. Instead of a knuckle, the index finger is pointing at the side of the mouth. The location and movement are the same as for APPLE, but the handshape is different.

    The orientation of the hands is also important for ASL signs, that is, the direction that the hands are facing. Compare the two ASL signs for BALANCE and MAYBE. They’re very similar, but the orientation of the hands is different in the two signs.

    The final parameter that can differ between signs is non-manual markers, that is, the parts of the body that aren’t the hands. Look here at the sign for LATE, and then look at the sign for NOT YET. What the hands do is pretty similar in these signs, but for NOT YET, the tongue protrudes. If you made the handsign without the tongue movement, you wouldn’t have the sign for NOT YET — the non-manual marker is a crucial part of the sign.

    These are just a very few examples from ASL, but they illustrate that signed languages are just as complex and just as systematic as spoken languages. Later in the book, we’ll talk about the morphology and syntax of signed languages too!

    1.7.2: Gestures and Sign Languages, from Sarah Harmon.


    Video Script

    At this point, it would be remiss of us to not talk about signed languages. As you read previously with the Catherine Anderson piece on sign languages there there's something to them it's not just random gestures that are just put together for no apparent reason. There's a reason to it, there's a systematic component to them and I’m going to go a little more into this. I’m also going to provide a few more clues to understand what a sign language really is.

    To start off realistically there's actually four different kinds of signed language, but when I say a ‘sign language’, you probably think primarily of something called a primary sign language. A primary sign language is, for example, American Sign Language, although as we'll talk about as it is not quite as ubiquitous as you think. But it is also not the only kind of signed language. There are in a number of villages, a village sign language, which is meant to be a secondary component. This means that the primary language is frequently spoken and then you have certain gestures that must be accompanied by that spoken language. It's not just a matter of talking, you must have certain signs that are shown with your conversation. They happen in a lot of communities around the world. There are also something called home sign languages; think baby sign language, the signs that we teach our children, our babies before they are fully lingual. For example, this [gesture] usually means ‘more’. We usually have them based off of whatever the local sign language is. The baby sign language that you're familiar with is probably the one that's connected to American Sign Language. The curious one for me is finger spelling because finger spelling is the one that we should all learn how to do. You're going to read something as a journal assignment that has to do with a signed name and the difference between a finger spelling of your name and a name sign.

    There are some really key facts that you have to remember with respect to sign languages. Just like a spoken language, there is morphology, phonology, syntax, and even a little bit of dialectology. Morphology is how you combine the signs to make a compound word; that one seems pretty straightforward. But phonology? Sound? How does that come into a sign language? Well, it's in the hand movements and how aggressive or subtle you are with the hand movements; that is really the phonology. Also, how you how you move as a whole, this is the syntax. Your telling of the story is not just the actual signs themselves, but how your hands move and even some facial gestures. Then dialectology well, even when you compare the alphabets of different sign languages there's a dialect ology if not a total language difference.

    For example, in the top right. Up top this is the American Sign Language alphabet; this is the one that if you took ASL, this is the alphabet that you have. But this one next to it is British, British Sign Language. Notice it is a two-hand system, not a one hand system like we have an American Sign Language. So American and the top left and just to the right of it is British Sign Language. Next to that we have Spanish Sign Language. If you speak Spanish, you'll notice some of those different sounds different letters that we have. The next to that is Irish Sign Language; notice that Irish Sign Language and American Sign Language are both one handed in the alphabet and have a lot of similar in fact almost identical signs. It is very different from British Sign Language. Down on the bottom, this is German Sign Language. The next to that we have Norwegian. And then next to that is Chinese Sign Language, which is based off of Mandarin. You see so many different possibilities, while there are some similarities, even just look at the A, letter A in even just the one-handed sign languages with respect to the alphabets. They're totally different; the A is pretty much the same in American Sign Language, Spanish (and this is Spain). Irish is pretty much the same. German pretty much the same. But notice Mandarin; it's a different sign. Instead of this [gesture], it is this [gesture]. Specifically, these different languages are using different tools.

    Speaking of different languages using different tools, let's talk about alternate sign languages. These are frequently used as in lieu of speaking. You might notice some interesting patterns with respect to culture. For example, in a number of the indigenous aboriginal communities of central Australia, if a woman is widowed and in mourning, they are banned from speaking. They use an alternate sign language tied to a village sign language in lieu of speaking they're not allowed to speak, and that is actually true in a number of communities around the world that if you are in mourning, a woman in particular and mourning, especially widowed, you're not allowed to speak, either indefinitely or for a certain period of time, depends on the culture. With respect to the Plains Indians, we are talking mostly various Sioux tribes, and a lot of tribes that are from about Kansas north through Canada. A lot of those areas where you think that they speak similar languages, they actually don't and over the centuries they developed a lingua franca, as it were, but signed instead of spoken. That way they could trade and have discussions and treaties. In Botswana, there is a linguistic community called Ts’ixa. They use a signed language when they are hunting; that makes sense because you don't want to use your voice to alert the animals that you're hunting. But they also use the same signed language when they're giving a narrative or a performance; think hula but with the hands. In various monastic communities, the Benedictine orders in particular are famous for this in Catholic communities, in a number of monastic communities around the world, monks and nuns are not allowed to speak. There's a code of silence. So how do you communicate? You sign; you have a set of symbols that you use and the Cistercian monks, the Cluniac monks, the Trappist monks all have a different setup of signs. Understand that when we talk about a sign language it's a really rich language. And really it isn't one, but a whole slew of types.

    1.7: Signed languages is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.