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The evolution of sign languages and possibly of all language

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1189348.  Mon Apr 25, 2016 8:53 am Reply with quote

The best-known sign languages are centuries old, but new sign languages are evolving around the world. Linguists have found that they all evolve in the same way:
Signs made by the dominant hand, indicating individual words, strung together without much grammatical structure
Head movements are added, indicating questions and general topics
Facial expressions come next, indicating grammatical complexities or emphasis
Movements of the torso come next, indicating who or what is being discussed
Finally the non-dominant hand comes to be used, indicating topic continuity or classification

Recruiting new parts of the body for signing makes the language more efficient. In a fast-evolving young language, these changes and refinements can be tracked from one generation of signers to the next.

The fact that all sign languages seem to follow this same evolutionary pattern, no matter where they emerge or what the community's spoken language is, seems to hint that this is a basic pattern common to human language in general. Rather than a single breakthrough leap from animal cries to true speech, it's likely that proto-humans passed through several stages of quasi-language, beginning with individual words.

1189742.  Wed Apr 27, 2016 5:46 pm Reply with quote

Sorry about all the TLAs in this post ...

I must apologize to RLD, because I'd somehow completely missed the existence of this thread until now.

The linked article mentions Nicaraguan Sign Language (and calls it "NSL", although ISN is the more common abbreviation for it). ISN is extremely interesting to language scholars because it was invented spontaneously by kids at a school for the deaf in Nicaragua in around 1981. Most sign languages are devised by committees and then have to be taught to the people who will use them, but this is a rare exception.

Israeli Sign Language (ISL) is a divergent dialect of German Sign Language (DGS).* It was devised by a committee, but as noted in the article its users have changed it quite a bit over the last eighty years (to the extent that users of DGS don't understand it any more). It's certainly interesting that the ISL and ISN communities have developed their languages in similar ways.

To pre-empt a question, the user groups probably wouldn't even have known of each other's existence, and it is understood that both the teachers at their schools and independent researchers have taken pains not to attempt to teach the deaf children about other sign languages. So no, neither group is likely to have cribbed from the other.

But then we come to the difficult bit. The article gives evidence for a hypothesis that - provided that those committees keep out the way - all new sign languages evolve in comparable ways. I don't think we can consider that hypothesis as proven, but it is certainly attractive and supported by some evidence.

Can we go on from there to assert that spoken languages too evolve in much the same ways? Professor Sandler certainly wants to, and since this is her specialist subject and not mine I am in no position to say that she's wrong. But at the same time, I do not believe that at this stage we can necessarily assert that she is right.

* Note that this does not mean that it's Yiddish rather than Hebrew; sign languages are entirely independent of the spoken language(s) of the places where they are used.

Go to Ireland and attempt to use BSL to a deaf Irish woman. She won't have a clue, much as she like you can read and write English. She may not be able to read or write French, but if a Frenchman turns up and signs to her in French Sign Language she'll understand every word. I don't know why this is so, but deaf people in Ireland use a dialect of French Sign Language.

1189792.  Thu Apr 28, 2016 5:51 am Reply with quote

Very interesting.

As I think I've mentioned before, I've started learning Turkish on a well-known mobile app. Sometimes I can barely believe that such a language occurred naturally. Japanese was the same.

1189833.  Thu Apr 28, 2016 7:57 am Reply with quote

During the course of undergrad essay-writing, I learned that an older Catholic Deaf people could communicate with your hypothetical Deaf Irish woman, because they could have been educated in Catholic Deaf schools, which were run by Irish Catholic nuns and priests.

1190427.  Tue May 03, 2016 7:15 am Reply with quote

suze wrote:
Go to Ireland and attempt to use BSL to a deaf Irish woman. She won't have a clue, much as she like you can read and write English. She may not be able to read or write French, but if a Frenchman turns up and signs to her in French Sign Language she'll understand every word. I don't know why this is so, but deaf people in Ireland use a dialect of French Sign Language.

American Sign Language is also derived from French Sign Language. We know the history of this, though: the original American School for the Deaf created ASL from a combination of French SL and local signs that were brought in by the students.

Nearly 60% of modern ASL signs are cognate to Old French SL signs. American Sign Language is mutually unintelligible with British or Australian sign languages.

1190473.  Tue May 03, 2016 11:45 am Reply with quote

Thanks RLD.

I knew that BSL (of which Australia and New Zealand's sign languages are derivatives) was unrelated to ASL, even though both are used in communities where the main spoken language is English.

But I did not know that ASL was itself a derivative of French Sign Language (LSF). So indeed are many of the other main sign languages of Europe. German Sign Language evolved independently and Polish Sign Language is derived from it, while Swedish Sign Language also evolved independently, and - bizarrely - Portuguese Sign Language is derived from it. But most of the others are derived from LSF.

1190499.  Tue May 03, 2016 12:54 pm Reply with quote

Is there a kind of sign language Esperanto?

1190539.  Tue May 03, 2016 5:29 pm Reply with quote


These days it goes by the prosaic name of International Sign (its official name in all languages), but it was originally called Gestuno which is an Esperanto word.

It is used at international events for deaf people such as the congress of the World Federation for the Deaf and the Deaflympics, and is a sort of pidgin sign language based mostly on ESL and LSF.

1190664.  Wed May 04, 2016 9:31 am Reply with quote

French Sign Language is so influential because it was the first official sign language, as opposed to local sign systems that arose randomly in families or villages with substantial numbers of deaf people. So it became the go-to example when other countries developed schools for the deaf and associated sign languages.

1190665.  Wed May 04, 2016 9:33 am Reply with quote

British Sign Language has two very distinct dialects, one that grew up around London and the other around Liverpool/Manchester.

I know a very small smattering of American SL, and would love to learn British SL -- but I don't want to study it here in Bolton and end up with a northern "accent".

1190674.  Wed May 04, 2016 10:02 am Reply with quote

There's also the Makaton language, which Mr Tumble uses.

<edit>for people who don't habitually watch CBeebies, Mr Tumble is a character on Something Special

1191001.  Fri May 06, 2016 10:09 am Reply with quote

I would enjoy learning Makaton as well, but when I looked into it, it was really expensive -- worth the price if you need it to communicate with a disabled child, but far more than I could justify as a hobby interest.

It may have come down since, but I haven't researched it for years.

1191004.  Fri May 06, 2016 10:16 am Reply with quote

Yesterday I learned that there is an independently evolved sign language in a small corner of Martha's Vineyard:



1379422.  Wed Apr 14, 2021 8:37 am Reply with quote

I knew we'd had a thread about sign language somewhere!

Since there's no school this week I had the chance to watch PMQs live on a television set, rather than listening to it on my phone. We had what may be a first, in the form of Vicky Foxcroft MP (Lab, Lewisham Deptford) asking her question in British Sign Language. (It can be seen here. There is no sound for the first 10 seconds while Ms Foxcroft is signing.)

Her question was about the absence of BSL at Prime Ministerial briefings, especially now that there's a shiney new room from which to deliver those briefings. This is one of Ms Foxcroft's "things" and she has asked the same question before, and she got the same non answer now as then. The Prime Minister takes her point, but actually addressing it might take longer.

If for whatever reason he's decided it's not happening, why won't he say so? Otherwise, why isn't it happening as it does in Scotland and many other jurisdictions?

1379440.  Wed Apr 14, 2021 1:21 pm Reply with quote

Good for her!


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