Discovering sign languages: why are they different from each other?

Numerous times, I have been asked this question: “Why don’t all deaf people choose to use the same sign language? It would be much easier, they could all communicate!” The most straightforward answer I can think of is another question: “Why don’t all hearing people choose to use the same spoken language? It would be much easier, they could all communicate!” 

Sign languages are, in fact, languages. The thought of all of us sharing a single spoken language is not questioned so much. This happens mainly because of the lack of information that people outside the deaf community, and their families, have. To bring some light into it, here are some interesting details about this group of languages.

What makes a sign language a sign language?

People frequently confuse gestures with signs. While the former are basic and have limitations in providing information, the latter are limitless. With a thumbs up gesture, you can communicate that you are fine in a specific moment; but with signing, you can say what happened for you to be this way, what is happening right now, or what is going to happen to you. It is like comparing a picture of someone smiling with a whole conversation about happiness.

Even though we may not be aware of this, sign languages not only involve hands, but they also need facial expressions and even body movement; a sign with the wrong expression could deviate the meaning of what you really want to express. Just by raising your eyebrows, you can turn a statement into a question.

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Sign languages, contrary to what many people think, are not an artificial construct. They are a natural phenomenon that developed just as any spoken language – due to the need for communication. Studies show that sign language processing is actually located in the same brain area as spoken language, and deaf children go through the same acquisition stages as the hearing ones.

These languages, just like any other, have their own spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. A common misconception is believing that sign languages are tied to spoken languages in the same territory. If we compare two English speaking countries, like Ireland and South Africa, we find that their spoken language is similar, while their sign languages are not related. 

The same happens with grammar; it can be completely different from the spoken languages. The structure of the sentence can be similar to the one you would expect, or it can have the verb at the end of everything, or the subject can even be repeated at the beginning and the end. Every sign language has its own features.

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The diversity of sign languages.

Even though it was not up until late in history when the first sign language was considered official, there is evidence to believe signs and gestures were one of the first forms of human communication. Unfortunately, it was once believed that in order to recognise something as a language, it needed to be spoken. That belittled signs and deemed them as something shameful. In the 16th century, a milestone for the deaf was achieved: sign languages began to be regarded in a different way, allowing them to be taught and used, and they slowly evolved to become what they are today.

According to the list created by Ethnologue, there are more than 140 sign languages around the world. Besides them not being bound with the spoken language of their country, sign languages also show variations and dialects. A sign for an object can differ in Spanish Sign Language if you move across regions or even cities, but they share a common system and it is understandable for every language user.

Also, not every country has a single native sign language. We know that there are countries that have more than one official language – like Ireland, with English and Irish. That also happens with sign languages. For instance, in Australia we find the one called Auslan, and also Australian Aborigines Sign Language.

There are families of sign languages – languages that evolve from the same ancestor and today share features among them. For example, Irish Sign Language comes from the Old French Sign Language. Of course, it evolved and was influenced by others – like what happened with any language throughout history. Picture it like trees that grow from a seed – a mother language – and start developing different branches – the evolutions of that language, which takes many paths, and results in other separate languages.

So, you may be wondering if there are similarities between sign languages. Yes, as it happens in spoken language, grammatical structures can coincide, and also vocabulary: in Spanish and Italian, the same word can be identical in writing, meaning, and almost the same pronunciation; for example, cantante is the word for “singer” in both languages. That does not mean that a Spanish speaker can necessarily speak Italian or vice-versa, even though they may understand a considerable part. This also happens with signs, some can coincide in more than one language, but that does not make those languages completely the same.

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A sign language for all?

Globalisation and travel created the necessity of a lingua franca – the language used by speakers of different languages to understand each other, like the role English has today for spoken language.

For this purpose, using grammatical rules from some sign languages, emblematic signs common in many languages and understood by everyone, combining signs from here and there… a language that was intelligible for all was born: the International Sign Language, also known as Gestuno. Still, it has no native users and is only used in meetings with people of different nationalities. Also, misunderstandings do occur, as they do not always use signs that the others can interpret. If you are curious about Gestuno, check the European Union of the Deaf website.

Believing that we could all suddenly decide to use a single language and be able to understand everyone is something that has been talked about for a long time. In spoken language, Esperanto was created with that hope, but it is obviously not something you can impose on the world, and it is the perfect example to show –  as it was created at the end of the 1800s and has not yet succeeded – why the same reasons apply to sign languages; which are diverse, cultural, and individual, just like any language.

Julia Villanueva
Julia Villanueva

Spaniard living in Ireland, passionate about literature, learning languages, and knowing different cultures.

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