A meaningful silence

Translated from Dutch. Original article by Gaston Dorren.

When I told my friends that I had joined a sign language course, there were two kinds of surprising reactions. Firstly, they showed much more interest than when I was learning Danish, Spanish, Russian, Norwegian, Romanian or Czech. (No, I don’t speak those languages. And yes, my friends got a lot to digest.) Sign languages seem to entice a lot of curiosity.

Secondly, even though my friend circles consist of a lot of master degree holders, and a doctor, I heard quite a few distressingly misinformed remarks about sign language. Despite so much evangelism in the beginning of the eighties by linguists and sign language advocates, many of the first misconceptions are still around. This is why I have set myself a simple goal: I will summarize seven common, but incorrect assumptions, and will deal with every one of them.

1. “Sign language is a global language”

If only that were true. The course I joined, was a beginners course in the Dutch Sign Language (Nederlandse Gebarentaal, NGT). Had I used the little I learned on British sign language users, they’d have great difficulty in understanding me, for their first language is BSL (British Sign Language), and that is not even related to NGT. Nevertheless, put two people together, each of them fluent in their own sign languages, and they will overcome the language barrier more easily than two people who speak their own languages. People who learn to sign fluently, will be able to improvise well by gesticulating. As long as the two sign language users are talking about concrete topics, they will understand each other quite well. But when they start talking about abstract topics, like say, discussing the regulation of the financial sector, then they’d be tongue-tied – or rather, finger-tied.

But why isn’t there one global language for sign language? That’d have been much more practical, right? Of course. That is like it’d be more practical if everyone in the world would speak English, or Esperanto, or right, why not Dutch? It is just that both spoken languages and sign languages historically originated in communities where people wanted to communicate, with each other, not with all the people of the world. And when a community, any community, has formed their own language, best of luck getting them off that language. Language shifts do happen (for example in Brussels, the political center of the EU), but only in very special circumstances.

2. “So surely the English sign language is the global language for deaf people”

There is no such thing as an “English sign language”. The British Sign Language (BSL) is quite small with a little over 30,000 users. Compare this with IPSL, with millions of users in India and Pakistan. If there’d be a dominant sign language, then that’d be the American Sign Language (ASL). This is by historical coincidence not related to the British, but rather to the French (LSF, Langue des Signes Française). The language families of sign languages are in no way an exact copy of the language families like we know them from spoken languages – Germanic, Roman, Slavic, et cetera. Sign language families do exist, but their composition is different. This is because schools for the deaf, where they originated from, were influenced by methods and signs from other countries, not necessarily neighboring countries. One family consists of the sign languages of Sweden, Finland and Portugal, while the French LSF has influenced ASL, NGT, the Irish ISL and many more. The next of kin for BSL are Auslan (Australia) and NZSL (New Zealand) – so much that they are often regarded as dialects of BSL.

3. “Sign language can only convey simple messages”

Perhaps the most convincing argument against this surprisingly widespread idea is the fact that since one and a half century ago, there has been a university that uses sign language as its medium of instruction, the Gallaudet University in Washington. All courses, ranging from chemistry and mathematics, to philosophy and history, are taught and discussed in ASL. This does not mean that every ASL user knows the sign for mercury(II)chloride or existentialism, in much the same way that not every English user knows what these terms mean. It also does not mean that every sign language has a fixed sign for these terms, just like not all languages of the world have a word for them – in Classical Latin and in most languages of Papua New Guinea, they certainly do not exist. But just as the users of every spoken language can and will develop their own vocabulary to meet their communication needs, so can and will the sign language users do the same.

And for those who think that that is impossible because there will be a time that signs will run out, I ask you: would our tongues, lips and throats really have more different positions and combinations than our arms, fingers and faces? I’d think the other way around would be the case.

4. “Sign language consists of spelling out the words”

There is some truth in this: most sign languages do have a so-called finger- or hand-alphabet, with which you can spell out the words from the spoken language. But this tool is mostly used for names and other terms for which the people involved in the conversation, do not know a sign. When they have to use the same name or term repeatedly, they will think of a sign for the occasion, and afterwards find out if there isn’t already a sign for it. These alphabets for finger-spelling are not a global standard either, even though you’ll be able to find a lot of common shapes. An exception is BSL, which uses two hands to spell a letter, instead of one hand, which is more common in other sign languages.

5. “A sign language mirrors its spoken language”

Sign languages are created by deaf people. Why would they base it on a language they have trouble accessing themselves? So that is not what they did. This is noticeable from, for example, the sentence structure in sign language, which is very different (see misconception 6). Another difference is that many terms for which Dutch has one word, such as “klein” (small) or “geven” (give), can be expressed in NGT in an array of different ways, depending on for example the shape of the related object.

On the other hand, sign languages are not fully isolated from their surrounding spoken languages. Firstly, the spoken languages have some influence on the sign language vocabulary. Many compound words (Dutch examples: appelsap (apple juice), levensverzekering (life insurance), even the sign for gebarentaal (sign language)) follow the same pattern as in the spoken language. Furthermore, some of the signs are accompanied by mouth shapes that often, but not always, mimic the according words without making a sound. Some signs even have a different meaning depending on the mouth shape that comes with them.

As confusing as it may sound, there are sign language systems that exactly follow the spoken languages. Manually Coded English (MCE) is one example. Another case is Signed Dutch (Nederlands met Gebaren, NmG), a combination of spoken Dutch and fixed signs for clarification. MCE and NmG are not natural languages, but consciously developed tools to ease the communication between hearing people and deaf people.

6. “Sign languages do not have grammar”

When I was a child, my mother used to tell me that “English does not have grammar”. It was not until later that I understood what she meant: English, unlike French and German, does not conjugate its verbs and adjectives with suffixes. And it is true that sign languages do not have “suffixes” either – to be fair, I have difficulty imagining what a “sign suffix” would be like. Despite this, they certainly have grammar: both English and the sign languages.

Just like their spoken counterparts, sign languages can make use of the word order to clarify the role of each word in a sentence. In English, “the scissors are on top of the book” means something different than “the book is on top of the scissors”. In NGT, the first sentence would have been expressed with the following sign order: book – scissors – on top, and the second sentence would have been: scissors – book – on top. Probably different than you’d expect, but it is pretty consistent.

Other than word order, sign languages also have a sense of dimension, that spoken languages lack – or actually three of them: width, height, and depth, space so to say. The sign language grammar fully utilizes that option. For example, “ask” has one hand shape, but its movement adds meaning. When signing “I ask you something”, the hand moves from the speaker to the listener; the reverse movement expresses the reverse meaning.

7. “Signs depict their meaning”

The sign for “apple” looks like biting in an apple, and with “coffee”, it is clear that the act of grinding coffee beans is expressed (at least, for those who still remember coffee grinders). These are “iconic” signs, the visual counterparts of spoken words like “cuckoo” and “clap”, which mimic the sound of what they mean. Such iconic words exist in sign languages much more than in spoken languages. They are sometimes very obvious, and sometimes a bit concealed. That is not surprising, as with sign language you can express many more things and actions than you can with sounds. But, however ingenious or witty the “inventors” of sign languages have been, there are still thousands of terms for which even they could not think of an iconic sign – how would you express “organization”, “apartment” or “primrose” with just your hands? In short, even though sign languages are indeed more iconic in nature than spoken languages, most of the signs look like they have been chosen as arbitrarily as how spoken words sound.

There are more misconceptions than these seven: “in sign language, you can not shout or whisper”, “sign languages do not have dialects or slang, let alone poetry”, or “sign languages can not be written”… They are all incorrect. So are there really no limits to the possibilities of sign languages? Yes, there are, a few of them. It is a bit hard to sign in the dark (just like it is hard to speak in a crowded pub). Signing while driving is not recommended. But other than that, sign language users only have one problem when it comes to communication, and that is that the society they live in, speaks a different language. If all of us were deaf, we’d all be signing, and we wouldn’t be worse off.

About the author

Gaston Dorren“Having started to talk before I could walk, I remember my pre-schooler’s  frustration at being unable to read. In my teens and later, I learnt a handful of languages well and dabbled in several others. As a journalist, I published two well-received books on linguistics, both in Dutch: Nieuwe tongen (New Tongues, 1999) on the languages of migrants in the Benelux, and Taaltoerisme (Language Tourism, 2012), a lively grand tour of 53 European languages. The latter was the basis for the Profile book Lingo (November 2014).”

— Gaston Dorren

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