Just a couple of announcements before I get to the body of this post. First of all, Happy New Year! While the New Year can be exciting for everyone, linguists get a special treat every year around this time: the Linguistic Society of America’s Annual Meeting, the biggest conference in the field of Linguistics. I’ll be going this year, so you can expect an extra post or two this week – at the very least, I’ll report on the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year! I’ll go back to my normal posting schedule (once a week on Wednesdays) afterwards.
Since I discussed the sign language community of South Africa recently, I thought it might be a fun idea to share some facts about sign language that hearing people may not know. I will preface by saying I am by no means an expert on the subject. I can count the number of signs I know on one hand. However, it is incredibly common for a person to go through a linguistics education and absorb information about languages without even being able to ask for directions to the bathroom in said languages.
So, without further ado, I present to you: the facts.
Fun Facts about Signed Languages
1. There is not just one “sign language.” That may seem obvious — why would deaf people in Russia and the US sign the same language? However, you may not know that sign language is very distinct from spoken language, and the fact that people in two countries may speak the same spoken language does not guarantee that their signed languages are what linguists call “mutually intelligible” with one another. Languages are mutually intelligible if a speaker of one can understand the other, and vice versa. In fact, due to its unique history, American Sign Language (ASL) is actually closer to French Sign Language than to British Sign Language.
2. In the case of American Sign Language, the “listener” focuses on the face, not the hands. Facial expressions take the place of rhythm and intonation (what linguists call “prosody”), and in many cases ASL speakers will mouth the words in English while signing them. Signing occurs in the space around the face, as well as below the face in front of the torso. There is a tendency for signs that occur around the face to be “small”: they are made with one hand, and if there is a corresponding motion that motion tends to be restricted in area. By contrast, signs made further down in front of the torso tend to be double-handed signs, with more boisterous motion.
3. Pronouns (I, you, him, her, etc.) are not signs, but motions. For example, in the ASL sentence “I give you,” , “I’ and “you” are not really individual signs, but instead a signer would form the sign for “give,” indicating that “I” give to “you” by moving the “give” sign forward from themselves in the direction of the person they are signing to. If the sentence changed to “you give me,” they would simply reverse the direction of the motion.
4. Having just read Fun Fact #3, you may be wondering about how they handle referring to people who are not in the room. If an ASL speaker wants to talk about their friend Lucy, but Lucy is not in the room, she will point to a space in the room, and assign that space the value of “Lucy” (via “fingerspelling” using hand symbols to represent individual letters). In order to use pronouns (so they don’t continually have to spell “Lucy” to discuss Lucy), they will indicate that space in the same way they could indicate “I” and “you” in the example from #3.
5. ASL speakers have signs equivalent to spoken English “um” and “uh.”
6. For linguists, sign language tells us much about language and communication in general. All spoken languages have the same physiological constraints of the vocal tract. Signed languages do not have those same constraints, but instead signers must communicate with an entirely different set of physiological restrictions, which are in turn common to all signed languages. When you look beyond the physiological similarities between the systems, comparing signed language and spoken language can tell you a lot about the cognitive and psychological aspects of language.
Do you have any other fun facts about sign language? Put them in the comments below or on my Facebook page.