American Sign Language (ASL) is a natural language that serves as the predominant sign language of Deaf communities in the United States and most of Anglophone Canada. Besides North America, dialects of ASL and ASL-based creoles are used in many countries around the world, including much of West Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. ASL is also widely learned as a second language, serving as a lingua franca. ASL is most closely related to French Sign Language (LSF). It has been proposed that ASL is a creole language of LSF, although ASL shows features atypical of creole languages, such as agglutinative morphology.
ASL originated in the early 19th century in the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in West Hartford, Connecticut, from a situation of language contact. Since then, ASL use has propagated widely via schools for the deaf and Deaf community organizations. Despite its wide use, no accurate count of ASL users has been taken, though reliable estimates for American ASL users range from 250,000 to 500,000 persons, including a number of children of deaf adults. ASL users face stigma due to beliefs in the superiority of oral language to sign language, compounded by the fact that ASL is often glossed in English due to the lack of a standard writing system.
ASL signs have a number of phonemic components, including movement of the face and torso as well as the hands. ASL is not a form of pantomime, but iconicity does play a larger role in ASL than in spoken languages. English loan words are often borrowed through fingerspelling, although ASL grammar is unrelated to that of English. ASL has verbal agreement and aspectual marking and has a productive system of forming agglutinative classifiers. Many linguists believe ASL to be a subject–verb–object (SVO) language, but there are several alternative proposals to account for ASL word order.
|American Sign Language|
|Langue des Signes Américaine (in the Canadian province of Québec)|
|Native to||United States, Canada|
|Region||English-speaking North America|
|250,000–500,000 in the United States (1972):26|
L2 users: Used as L2 by many hearing people and by Hawaii Sign Language speakers.
|None are widely accepted |
si5s (ASLwrite), ASL-phabet, Stokoe notation, SignWriting
Official language in
ASL emerged as a language in the American School for the Deaf (ASD), founded in 1817.:7 This school brought together Old French Sign Language, various village sign languages, and home sign systems; ASL was created in this situation of language contact.:11[nb 1] ASL was influenced by its forerunners but distinct from all of them.:7
The influence of French Sign Language (LSF) on ASL is readily apparent; for example, it has been found that about 58% of signs in modern ASL are cognate to Old French Sign Language signs.:7:14 However, this is far less than the standard 80% measure used to determine whether related languages are actually dialects.:14 This suggests that nascent ASL was highly affected by the other signing systems brought by the ASD students, despite the fact that the school's original director Laurent Clerc taught in LSF.:7:14 In fact, Clerc reported that he often learned the students' signs rather than conveying LSF::14
I see, however, and I say it with regret, that any efforts that we have made or may still be making, to do better than, we have inadvertently fallen somewhat back of Abbé de l'Épée. Some of us have learned and still learn signs from uneducated pupils, instead of learning them from well instructed and experienced teachers.— Clerc, 1852, from Woodward 1978:336
It has been proposed that ASL is a creole with LSF as the superstrate language and with the native village sign languages as substrate languages.:493 However, more recent research has shown that modern ASL does not share many of the structural features that characterize creole languages.:501 ASL may have begun as a creole and then undergone structural change over time, but it is also possible that it was never a creole-type language.:501 There are modality-specific reasons that sign languages tend towards agglutination, for example the ability to simultaneously convey information via the face, head, torso, and other body parts. This might override creole characteristics such as the tendency towards isolating morphology.:502 Additionally, Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet may have used an artificially constructed form of manually coded language in instruction rather than true LSF.:497
Although the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia share English as a common oral and written language, ASL is not mutually intelligible with British Sign Language (BSL) or Auslan.:68 All three languages show degrees of borrowing from English, but this alone is not sufficient for cross-language comprehension.:68 It has been found that a relatively high percentage (37–44%) of ASL signs have similar translations in Auslan, which for oral languages would suggest that they belong to the same language family.:69 However, this does not seem justified historically for ASL and Auslan, and it is likely that this resemblance is due to the higher degree of iconicity in sign languages in general, as well as contact with English.:70
American Sign Language is growing in popularity among many states. Many people in high school and colleges desire to take it as a foreign language, but until recently, it was not a creditable foreign language elective. The issue was that many didn't consider it a foreign language. ASL users, however, have a very distinct culture and way they interact when talking. Their facial expressions and hand movements reflect what they are conveying. They also have their own sentence structure which sets the language apart.
Prior to the birth of ASL, sign language had been used by various communities in the United States.:5 In the United States, as elsewhere in the world, hearing families with deaf children have historically employed ad-hoc home sign, which often reaches much higher levels of sophistication than gestures used by hearing people in spoken conversation.:5 As early as 1541 at first contact by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, there were reports that the Plains Indians had developed a sign language to communicate between tribes of different languages.
In the 19th century, a "triangle" of village sign languages developed in New England: one in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts; one in Henniker, New Hampshire, and one in Sandy River Valley, Maine. Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), which was particularly important for the history of ASL, was used mainly in Chilmark, Massachusetts.:5–6 Due to intermarriage in the original community of English settlers of the 1690s, and the recessive nature of genetic deafness, Chilmark had a high 4% rate of genetic deafness.:5–6. MVSL was used even by hearing residents whenever a deaf person was present,:5–6 and also in some situations where spoken language would be ineffective or inappropriate, such as during church sermons or between boats at sea.
ASL is thought to have originated in the American School for the Deaf (ASD), founded in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817.:4 Originally known as The American Asylum, At Hartford, For The Education And Instruction Of The Deaf And Dumb, the school was founded by the Yale graduate and divinity student Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Gallaudet, inspired by his success in demonstrating the learning abilities of a young deaf girl Alice Cogswell, traveled to Europe in order to learn deaf pedagogy from European institutions. Ultimately, Gallaudet chose to adopt the methods of the French Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, and convinced Laurent Clerc, an assistant to the school's founder Charles-Michel de l'Épée, to accompany him back to the United States.[nb 2] Upon his return, Gallaudet founded the ASD on April 15, 1817.
The largest group of students during the first seven decades of the school were from Martha's Vineyard, and they brought MVSL with them.:10 There were also 44 students from around Henniker, New Hampshire, and 27 from the Sandy River valley in Maine, each of which had their own village sign language.:11[nb 3] Other students brought knowledge of their own home signs.:11 Laurent Clerc, the first teacher at ASD, taught using French Sign Language (LSF), which itself had developed in the Parisian school for the deaf established in 1755.:7 From this situation of language contact, a new language emerged, now known as ASL.:7
More schools for the deaf were founded after ASD, and knowledge of ASL spread to these schools.:7 In addition, the rise of Deaf community organizations bolstered the continued use of ASL.:8 Societies such as the National Association of the Deaf and the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf held national conventions that attracted signers from across the country.:13 This all contributed to ASL's wide use over a large geographical area, atypical of a sign language.:14:12
Up to the 1950s, the predominant method in deaf education was oralism – acquiring oral language comprehension and production. Linguists did not consider sign language to be true "language", but rather something inferior. Recognition of the legitimacy of ASL was achieved by William Stokoe, a linguist who arrived at Gallaudet University in 1955 when this was still the dominant assumption. Aided by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Stokoe argued for manualism, the use of sign language in deaf education. Stokoe noted that sign language shares the important features that oral languages have as a means of communication, and even devised a transcription system for ASL. In doing so, Stokoe revolutionized both deaf education and linguistics. In the 1960s, ASL was sometimes referred to as "Ameslan", but this term is now considered obsolete.
Counting the number of ASL signers is difficult because ASL users have never been counted by the American census.:1[nb 4] The ultimate source for current estimates of the number of ASL users in the United States is a report for the National Census of the Deaf Population (NCDP) by Schein and Delk (1974).:17 Based on a 1972 survey of the NCDP, Schein and Delk provided estimates consistent with a signing population between 250,000 and 500,000.:26 The survey did not distinguish between ASL and other forms of signing; in fact, the name "ASL" was not yet in widespread use.:18
Incorrect figures are sometimes cited for the population of ASL users in the United States based on misunderstandings of known statistics.:20 Demographics of the deaf population have been confused with those of ASL use, since adults who become deaf late in life rarely use ASL in the home.:21 This accounts for currently cited estimations which are greater than 500,000; such mistaken estimations can reach as high as 15,000,000.:1, 21 A 100,000-person lower bound has been cited for ASL users; the source of this figure is unclear, but it may be an estimate of prelingual deafness, which is correlated with but not equivalent to signing.:22
ASL is sometimes incorrectly cited as the third- or fourth-most-spoken language in the United States.:15, 22 These figures misquote Schein and Delk (1974), who actually concluded that ASL speakers constituted the third-largest population requiring an interpreter in court.:15, 22 Although this would make ASL the third-most used language among monolinguals other than English, it does not imply that it is the fourth-most-spoken language in the United States, since speakers of other languages may also speak English.:21–22
ASL is used throughout Anglo-America.:12 This contrasts with Europe, where a variety of sign languages are used within the same continent.:12 The unique situation of ASL seems to have been caused by the proliferation of ASL through schools influenced by the American School for the Deaf, wherein ASL originated, and the rise of community organizations for the Deaf.:12–14
Throughout West Africa, ASL-based sign languages are spoken by educated Deaf adults.:410 These languages, imported by boarding schools, are often considered by associations to be the official sign languages of their countries, and are named accordingly, e.g. Nigerian Sign Language, Ghanaian Sign Language.:410 Such signing systems are found in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Liberia, Mauritania, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo.:406 Due to lack of data, it is still an open question how similar these sign languages are to the variety of ASL used in America.:411
In addition to the aforementioned West African countries, ASL is reported to be used as a first language in Barbados, Bolivia, Cambodia, the Central African Republic, Chad, China (Hong Kong), the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Jamaica, Kenya, Madagascar, the Philippines, Singapore, and Zimbabwe. ASL is also used as a lingua franca throughout the deaf world, widely learned as a second language.
Sign production can often vary according to location. Signers from the South tend to sign with more flow and ease. Native signers from New York have been reported as signing comparatively more quickly and sharply. Sign production of native Californian signers has also been reported as being fast as well. Research on this phenomenon often concludes this fast-paced production for signers from the coast could be due to the fast-paced nature of living in large metropolitan areas. This conclusion also supports how the ease with which Southern sign could be due to the easy going environment of the South in comparison to that of the East and West coast.
Sign production can also vary depending on age and native language. For example, sign production of letters may vary in older signers. Slight differences in finger spelling production can be a signal of age. Additionally, signers who learned American Sign Language as a second language vary in production. For Deaf signers who learned a different sign language before learning American Sign Language, qualities of their native language may show in their ASL production. Some examples of this varied production are finger spelling towards the body instead of away from, and signing certain movement from bottom to top instead of top to bottom. Hearing people that learn American Sign Language also have noticeable differences in signing production. The most notable production difference of hearing people learning American Sign Language is their rhythm and arm posture.
Most popularly there are variants of the signs for English words such as "birthday", "pizza", "Halloween", "early", and "soon". These are just a sample of the most commonly recognized signs with variant based on regional change. The sign for "school" is commonly varied between black and white signers. The variation between sign produced by black and white signers is sometimes referred to as Black American Sign Language.
The prevalence of residential Deaf schools can account for much of the regional variance of signs and sign productions across the United States. Deaf schools often serve students of the state in which the school resides. This limited access to signers from other regions, combined with the residential quality of Deaf Schools promoted specific use of certain sign variants. Native signers did not have much access to signers from other regions during the beginning years of their education. It is hypothesized that because of this seclusion, certain variants of a sign prevailed over others due to the choice of variant used by the student of the school/signers in the community.
However, American Sign Language does not appear to be vastly varied when compared to other signed languages. This is because when Deaf education was beginning in the United States, many educators flocked to the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. This central location for the first generation of educators in Deaf education to learn American Sign Language allows ASL to be more standardized than it is variant.
Varieties of ASL are found throughout the world. There is little difficulty in comprehension among the varieties of the United States and Canada.
Just as there are accents in speech, there are regional accents in sign. People from the South sign slower than people in the North—even people from northern and southern Indiana have different styles.— Walker, Lou Ann (1987). A Loss for Words: The Story of Deafness in a Family. New York: HarperPerennial. p. 31. ISBN 978-0-06-091425-7.
Mutual intelligibility among these ASL varieties is high, and the variation is primarily lexical. For example, there are three different words for English about in Canadian ASL; the standard way, and two regional variations (Atlantic and Ontario), as shown in the videos on the right. Variation may also be phonological, meaning that the same sign may be signed in a different way depending on the region. For example, an extremely common type of variation is between the handshapes /1/, /L/, and /5/ in signs with one handshape.
There is also a distinct variety of ASL used by the Black Deaf community. Black ASL evolved as a result of racially segregated schools in some states, which included the residential schools for the deaf.:4 Black ASL differs from standard ASL in vocabulary, phonology, and some grammatical structure.:4 While African American English (AAE) is generally viewed as more innovating than standard English, Black ASL is more conservative than standard ASL, preserving older forms of many signs.:4 Black sign language speakers use more two-handed signs than in mainstream ASL, are less likely to show assimilatory lowering of signs produced on the forehead (e.g. KNOW) and use a wider signing space.:4 Modern Black ASL borrows a number of idioms from AAE; for instance, the AAE idiom "I feel you" is calqued into Black ASL.:10
ASL is used internationally as a lingua franca, and a number of closely related sign languages derived from ASL are used in many different countries. Even so, there have been varying degrees of divergence from standard ASL in these imported ASL varieties. Bolivian Sign Language is reported to be a dialect of ASL, no more divergent than other acknowledged dialects. On the other hand, it is also known that some imported ASL varieties have diverged to the extent of being separate languages. For example, Malaysian Sign Language, which has ASL origins, is no longer mutually comprehensible with ASL and must be considered its own language. For some imported ASL varieties, such as those used in West Africa, it is still an open question how similar they are to American ASL.:411
When communicating with hearing English speakers, ASL-speakers often use what is commonly called Pidgin Signed English (PSE) or 'contact signing', a blend of English structure with ASL. Various types of PSE exist, ranging from highly English-influenced PSE (practically relexified English) to PSE which is quite close to ASL lexically and grammatically, but may alter some subtle features of ASL grammar. Fingerspelling may be used more often in PSE than it is normally used in ASL. There have been some constructed sign languages, known as Manually Coded English (MCE), which match English grammar exactly and simply replace spoken words with signs; these systems are not considered to be varieties of ASL.
Tactile ASL (TASL) is a variety of ASL used throughout the United States by and with the deaf-blind. It is particularly common among those with Usher's syndrome. This syndrome results in deafness from birth followed by loss of vision later in life; consequently, those with Usher's syndrome often grow up in the Deaf community using ASL, and later transition to TASL. TASL differs from ASL in that signs are produced by touching the palms, and there are some grammatical differences from standard ASL in order to compensate for the lack of non-manual signing.
In 2013 the White House published a response to a petition that gained over 37,000 signatures to officially recognize American Sign Language as a community language and a language of instruction in schools. The response is titled "there shouldn't be any stigma about American Sign Language" and addressed that ASL is a vital language for the Deaf and hard of hearing. Stigmas associated with sign languages and the use of sign for educating children often lead to the absence of sign during periods in children's lives when they can access languages most effectively. Scholars such as Beth S. Benedict advocate not only for bilingualism (using ASL and English training) but also for early childhood intervention for children who are deaf. York University psychologist Ellen Bialystok has also campaigned for bilingualism, arguing that those who are bilingual acquire cognitive skills that may help to prevent dementia later in life.
The majority of children born to deaf parents are hearing.:192 These children, known as CODAs ("Children Of Deaf Adults") are often more culturally Deaf than deaf children, the majority of whom are born to hearing parents.:192 Unlike many deaf children, CODAs acquire ASL as well as Deaf cultural values and behaviors from birth.:192 These bilingual hearing children may be mistakenly labeled as being "slow learners" or as having "language difficulties" due to preferential attitudes towards spoken language.:195
Although there is no well-established writing system for ASL, written sign language dates back almost two centuries. The first systematic writing system for a sign language seems to be that of Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian, developed in 1825.:153 However, written sign language remained marginal among the public.:154 In the 1960s, linguist William Stokoe created Stokoe notation specifically for ASL. It is alphabetic, with a letter or diacritic for every phonemic (distinctive) hand shape, orientation, motion, and position, though it lacks any representation of facial expression, and is better suited for individual words than for extended passages of text. Stokoe used this system for his 1965 A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles.
SignWriting, proposed in 1974 by Valerie Sutton,:154 is the first writing system to gain use among the public and the first writing system for sign languages to be included in the Unicode Standard. SignWriting consists of more than 5000 distinct iconic graphs/glyphs.:154 Currently, it is in use in many schools for the Deaf, particularly in Brazil, and has been used in International Sign forums with speakers and researchers in more than 40 countries, including Brazil, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Tunisia, and the United States. Sutton SignWriting has both a printed and an electronically produced form so that persons can use the system anywhere that oral languages are written (personal letters, newspapers, and media, academic research). The systematic examination of the International Sign Writing Alphabet (ISWA) as an equivalent usage structure to the International Phonetic Alphabet for spoken languages has been proposed. According to some researchers, SignWriting is not a phonemic orthography and does not have a one-to-one map from phonological forms to written forms.:163 This assertion has been disputed and the process for each country to look at the ISWA and create a phonemic/morphemic assignment of features of each sign language was proposed by researchers Msc. Roberto Cesar Reis da Costa and Madson Barreto in a thesis forum on June 23, 2014. The SignWriting community has an open project on Wikimedia Labs to support the various Wikimedia projects on Wikimedia Incubator and elsewhere involving SignWriting. The ASL Wikipedia request was marked as eligible in 2008 and the test ASL Wikipedia has 50 articles written in ASL using SignWriting.
The most widely used transcription system among academics is HamNoSys, developed at the University of Hamburg.:155 Based on Stokoe Notation, HamNoSys was expanded to about 200 graphs in order to allow transcription of any sign language.:155 Phonological features are usually indicated with single symbols, though the group of features that make up a handshape is indicated collectively with a symbol.:155
For English-speaking audiences, ASL is often glossed using English words. These glosses are typically all-capitalized and are arranged in ASL order. For example, the ASL sentence DOG NOW CHASE>IX=3 CAT, meaning "the dog is chasing the cat", uses NOW to mark ASL progressive aspect and shows ASL verbal inflection for the third person (written with >IX=3). However, glossing is not used to write the language for speakers of ASL.
Each sign in ASL is composed of a number of distinctive components, generally referred to as parameters. A sign may use one hand or both. All signs can be described using the five parameters involved in signed languages, which are handshape, movement, palm orientation, location and non-manual markers.:10 Just as phonemes of sound distinguish meaning in spoken languages, these parameters are the phonemes that distinguish meaning in signed languages like ASL. Changing any one of these may change the meaning of a sign, as illustrated by the ASL signs THINK and DISAPPOINTED:
William Stokoe proposed that these components are analogous to the phonemes of spoken languages.:601:15[nb 5] There has also been a proposal that these are analogous to classes like place and manner of articulation.:601:15 As in spoken languages, these phonological units can be split into distinctive features.:12 For instance, the handshapes /2/ and /3/ are distinguished by the presence or absence of the feature [± closed thumb], as illustrated to the right.:12 ASL has processes of allophony and phonotactic restrictions.:12,19 There is ongoing research into whether ASL has an analog of syllables in spoken language.:1
ASL has a rich system of verbal inflection. This involves both grammatical aspect—how the action of verbs flows in time—and agreement marking.:27–28 Aspect can be marked by changing the manner of movement of the verb; for example, continuous aspect is marked by incorporating rhythmic, circular movement, while punctual aspect is achieved by modifying the sign so that it has a stationary hand position.:27–28 Verbs may agree with both the subject and the object, and are marked for number and reciprocity.:28 Reciprocity is indicated by using two one-handed signs; for example, the sign SHOOT, made with an L-shaped handshape with inward movement of the thumb, inflects to SHOOT[reciprocal], articulated by having two L-shaped hands "shooting" at each other.:29
ASL has a productive system of classifiers, which are used to classify objects and their movement in space.:26 For example, a rabbit running downhill would use a classifier consisting of a bent V classifier handshape with a downhill-directed path; if the rabbit is hopping, the path is executed with a bouncy manner.:26 In general, classifiers are composed of a "classifier handshape" bound to a "movement root".:26 The classifier handshape represents the object as a whole, incorporating such attributes as surface, depth, and shape, and is usually very iconic. The movement root consists of a path, a direction and a manner.:26
ASL possesses a set of 26 signs known as the American manual alphabet, which can be used to spell out words from the English language. These signs make use of the 19 handshapes of ASL. For example, the signs for 'p' and 'k' use the same handshape but different orientations. A common misconception is that ASL consists only of fingerspelling; although such a method (Rochester Method) has been used, it is not ASL.
Fingerspelling is a form of borrowing, a linguistic process wherein words from one language are incorporated into another. In ASL, fingerspelling is used for proper nouns and for technical terms with no native ASL equivalent. There are also some other loan words which are fingerspelled, either very short English words or abbreviations of longer English words, e.g. O-N from English 'on', and A-P-T from English 'apartment'. Fingerspelling may also be used to emphasize a word that would normally be signed otherwise.
FATHER – LOVE – CHILD
"The father loves the child."
However, other word orders may also occur, as ASL allows the topic of a sentence to be moved to sentence-initial position, a phenomenon known as topicalization. In object-subject-verb (OSV) sentences, the object is topicalized, marked by a forward head-tilt and a pause:
CHILDtopic, FATHER – LOVE
"The father loves the child."
Even more, word orders can be obtained through the phenomenon of subject copy. In subject copy, the subject is repeated at the end of the sentence, accompanied by head nodding, either for clarification or emphasis:
FATHER – LOVE – CHILD – FATHERcopy
"The father loves the child."
ASL also allows null subject sentences, where the subject is implied rather than stated explicitly. Subjects can be copied even in a null subject sentence, in which the subject is omitted from its original position, yielding a verb–object–subject (VOS) construction:
LOVE – CHILD – FATHERcopy
"The father loves the child."
Topicalization, accompanied with a null subject and a subject copy, can produce yet another word order, object–verb–subject (OVS).
CHILDtopic, LOVE – FATHERcopy
"The father loves the child."
These properties of ASL allow it a variety of word orders, leading many to question which is the true, underlying, "basic" order. There are several other proposals that attempt to account for the flexibility of word order in ASL. One proposal is that languages like ASL are best described with a topic–comment structure, where words are ordered by their importance in the sentence rather than by their syntactic properties. Another hypothesis is that ASL exhibits free word order, in which syntax is not encoded in word order whatsoever, but can be encoded by other means (e.g. head nods, eyebrow movement, body position).
A common misconception is that signs are iconically self-explanatory, that they are a transparent imitation of what they mean, or even that they are pantomime. In fact, many signs bear no resemblance to their referent, either because they were originally arbitrary symbols or because their iconicity has been obscured over time. Even so, in ASL iconicity plays a significant role; a high percentage of signs resemble their referents in some way. This may be due to the fact that the medium of sign—three-dimensional space—naturally allows more iconicity than oral language.
In the era of the influential linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, it was assumed that the mapping between form and meaning in language must be completely arbitrary. Although onomatopoeia is a clear exception, since words like 'choo-choo' bear clear resemblance to the sounds that they mimic, the Saussurean approach was to treat these as marginal exceptions. ASL, with its significant inventory of iconic signs, directly challenges this theory.
Research on acquisition of pronouns in ASL has shown that children do not always take advantage of the iconic properties of signs when interpreting their meaning. It has been found that when children acquire the pronoun "you", the iconicity of the point (at the child) is often confused, being treated more like a name. This is a similar finding to research in oral languages on pronoun acquisition. It has also been found that iconicity of signs does not affect immediate memory and recall; less iconic signs are remembered just as well as highly iconic signs.
ASL-phabet, or the ASL Alphabet, is a writing system developed by Samuel Supalla for American Sign Language (ASL). It is based on a system called SignFont, which Supalla modified and streamlined for use in an educational setting with Deaf children.Like SignFont and Stokoe notation, ASL-phabet is a phonemic script, but it has been simplified to the point where there is some ambiguity, that is, one symbol can represent more than one phonemic element (handshape, location or movement). For example, whereas SignFont has 25 letters encoding types of movement, and Stokoe notation has 24, ASL-phabet has just 5. This can result in homographs (more than one sign spelled the same way).
Altogether, ASL-phabet has 22 letters for handshape, 5 for location, and 5 for movement. They are written in that order, left-to-right, with the possibility for several letters of each type, such as two handshape letters for a two-handed sign. Like Stokoe notation (but unlike SignFont), the ASL-phabet does not provide symbols for facial expressions, mouthing, and other aspects of sign language structure, which may make it hard to use for extended text. However, it is sufficient to look up ASL words in an ASL–English dictionary. Hulst & Channon (2010) note, "This system, much more than SignWriting, acknowledges the fact (rightly, we believe) that a written representation of a word does not need to be a recipe to produce it, but only to be sufficiently unique to act as a trigger to activate the relevant words in the reader's mind."American Sign Language grammar
The grammar of American Sign Language (ASL) is the best studied of any sign language, though research is still in its infancy, dating back only to William Stokoe in the 1960s.American Sign Language literature
American Sign Language literature (or ASL literature) is one of the most important shared cultural experiences in the American Deaf community. Literary genres initially developed in residential Deaf institutes, such as American School for the Deaf in Hartford, CT, which is where American Sign Language developed as a language in the early 19th century. There are many genres of ASL Literature, such as Narratives of Personal Experience, Poetry, Cinematographic Stories, Folktales,Translated Works, Original Fiction and Stories with Handshape Constraints. Authors of ASL literature use their body as the text of their work, which is visually read and comprehended by their audience viewers. In the early development of ASL literary genres, the works were generally not analyzed as written texts are, but the increased dissemination of ASL literature on video has led to greater analysis of these genres.Many cultural communities develop their own folk traditions, and the Deaf community is no exception. Such traditions help to solidify the cultural identity of the group, and help educate each subsequent generation of the community’s shared cultural values. These types of shared stories are especially important to minority communities who have faced oppression from the majority culture, as the Deaf community has. Through folklore and other forms of storytelling, the Deaf community is able to both establish and affirm its cultural identity so its members are able to develop their sense of self. ASL Literature often emphasizes experiences common to the Deaf community, both in regard to their Deaf identity and to their status as a minority group.American manual alphabet
The American Manual Alphabet (AMA) is a manual alphabet that augments the vocabulary of American Sign Language.Black American Sign Language
Black American Sign Language (BASL) or Black Sign Variation (BSV) is a dialect of American Sign Language (ASL) used most commonly by deaf African Americans in the United States. The divergence from ASL was influenced largely by the segregation of schools in the American South. Like other schools at the time, schools for the deaf were segregated based upon race, creating two language communities among deaf signers: White deaf signers at White schools and Black deaf signers at Black schools. Today, BASL is still used by signers in the South despite public schools having been legally desegregated since 1954.
Linguistically, BASL differs from other varieties of ASL in its phonology, syntax, and vocabulary. BASL tends to have a larger signing space, meaning that some signs are produced further away from the body than in other dialects. Signers of BASL also tend to prefer two-handed variants of signs, while signers of ASL tend to prefer one-handed variants. Some signs are different in BASL as well, with some borrowings from African American English.Filipino Sign Language
Filipino Sign Language (FSL) or Philippine Sign Language, is a sign language originating in the Philippines. Like other sign languages, FSL is a unique language with its own grammar, syntax and morphology; it is neither based on nor resembles Filipino or English. Some researchers consider the indigenous signs of FSL to be at risk of being lost due to the increasing influence of foreign sign languages such as ASL.The Republic Act 11106 or The Filipino Sign Language Act, effective November 27, 2018, declared FSL as the national sign language of the Filipino Deaf.French Sign Language family
The French Sign Language (LSF) or Francosign family is a language family of sign languages which includes French Sign Language and American Sign Language.
The FSL family descends from Old French Sign Language, which developed among the deaf community in Paris. The earliest mention of Old French Sign Language is by the abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée in the late 17th century, but it could have existed for centuries prior. Several European sign languages, such as Russian Sign Language, derive from it, as does American Sign Language, established when French educator Laurent Clerc taught his language at the American School for the Deaf. Others, such as Spanish Sign Language, are thought to be related to French Sign Language even if they are not directly descendant from it.Greek Sign Language
Greek Sign Language (Greek: Ελληνική νοηματική γλώσσα) is the sign language of the Greek deaf community. It has been legally recognised as the official language of the Deaf Community in Greece by Law 2817 in 2000.
The Greek Sign Language is estimated to be used by about 40,600 signers in 1986.Greek SL formed in the 1950s when American Sign Language and French Sign Language came together, with admixture from indigenous sign.Handshape
In sign languages, handshape, or dez, refers to the distinctive configurations that the hands take as they are used to form words. In Stokoe terminology it is known as the DEZ, an abbreviation of designator. Handshape is one of five components of a sign, along with location (TAB), orientation (ORI), movement (SIG), and facial-body expression. Different sign languages make use of different handshapes.Hawai'i Sign Language
Hawaiʻi Sign Language (HSL), also known as Old Hawaiʻi Sign Language and Pidgin Sign Language (PSL), is an indigenous sign language used in Hawaiʻi. Although historical records document its presence on the islands as early as the 1820s, it was not formally recognized until 2013 by linguists at the University of Hawai'i. It is the first new language to be uncovered within the United States since the 1930s. Linguistic experts believe HSL may be the last undiscovered language in the country.Although previously believed to be related to American Sign Language (ASL), the two languages are in fact unrelated. The initial research team interviewed 19 Deaf people and two children of Deaf parents on four islands. It was found that eighty percent of HSL vocabulary is different from American Sign Language, proving that HSL is an independent language. Additionally, there is a HSL-ASL creole, Creole Hawai'i Sign Language (CHSL) which is used by approximately 40 individuals in the generations between those who signed HSL exclusively and those who sign ASL exclusively. However, since the 1940s ASL has almost fully replaced the use of HSL on the islands of Hawai'i and CHSL is likely to also be lost in the next 50 years.Prior to the recognition of HSL as a distinct language in 2013, it was an undocumented language. HSL is at risk of extinction due to its low number of signers and the adoption of ASL. With fewer than 30 signers remaining worldwide, HSL is considered critically endangered. Without documentation and revitalization efforts, such as the ongoing efforts initiated by Dr. James Woodward, Dr. Barbara Earth, and Linda Lambrecht, this language may become dormant or extinct.Idioms in American Sign Language
American Sign Language (ASL) is the main language of members of the deaf community in the United States. One component of their language is the use of idioms. The validity of these idioms have often been questioned or confused with metaphorical language. The term idiom can be defined as, "A speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements," (Idiom, 2007). The following examples are written in ASL glossing. These idioms further validate ASL as a language unique and independent of English. Idioms in ASL bond people in the Deaf community because they are expressions that only in-group members can understand.Indonesian sign languages
Indonesian Sign Language, or Bahasa Isyarat Indonesia (BISINDO), is any of several related deaf sign languages of Indonesia, at least on the island of Java. It is based on American Sign Language (perhaps via Malaysian Sign Language), with local admixture in different cities. Although presented as a coherent language when advocating for recognition by the Indonesian government and use in education, the varieties used in different cities may not be mutually intelligible.
Specifically, the only study to have investigated this, Isma (2012), found that the sign languages of Jakarta and Yogyakarta are related but distinct languages, that they remain 65% lexically cognate but are grammatically distinct and apparently diverging. They are different enough that Isma's consultants in Hong Kong resorted to Hong Kong Sign Language to communicate with each other. Word order in Yogyakarta tends to be verb-final (SOV), whereas in Jakarta it tends to be verb-medial (SVO) when either noun phrase could be subject or object, and free otherwise. The varieties in other cities were not investigated.
Rather than sign language, education currently uses a form of manually-coded Malay known as Sistem Isyarat Bahasa Indonesia (SIBI).Language interpretation
Interpreting is a translational activity in which one produces a first and final translation on the basis of a one-time exposure to an expression in a source language.
The most common two modes of interpreting are simultaneous interpreting, which is done at the time of the exposure to the source language, and consecutive interpreting, which is done at breaks to this exposure.
Interpreting is an ancient human activity which predates the invention of writing. However, the origins of the profession of interpreting date back to less than a century ago.Malaysian Sign Language
Malaysian Sign Language (Malay: Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia, or BIM) is the principal language of the deaf community of Malaysia. BIM has many dialects, differing from state to state.Malaysian Sign Language was created with the establishment of the Malaysian Federation of the Deaf in 1998, and its use has expanded among deaf leaders and participants. It is based on American Sign Language (ASL), but the two are considered different languages. BIM in turn has been the basis for Indonesian Sign Language.
Kod Tangan Bahasa Malaysia or Manually Coded Malay (KTBM) was created by hearing educators and linguists in between 1980 and 1986 and remains the only form of sign recognized by the Malaysian Ministry of Education. However, it is not a language in itself, but a means of manually coding the Malay language.
Sign languages which predate BIM in Malaysia are Penang Sign (PSL) and Selangor Sign (Kuala Lumpur Sign, SSL or KLSL). Additionally, every parent of deaf children uses unique created signs, called home signs, for gestural communication. The use of such home signs among peranakan or ethnic Chinese users of BIM may be responsible for the controversy over the supposed influence of Chinese Sign Languages, which is not well documented and may merely be based on ethnic stereotyping.Plains Indian Sign Language
Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), also known as Plains Sign Talk, Plains Sign Language and First Nation Sign Language, is a trade language (or international auxiliary language), formerly trade pidgin, that was once the lingua franca across what is now central Canada, central and western United States and northern Mexico, used among the various Plains Nations. It was also used for story-telling, oratory, various ceremonies, and by deaf people for ordinary daily use. It is falsely believed to be a manually coded language or languages; however, there is not substantive evidence establishing a connection between any spoken language and Plains Sign Talk.
The name 'Plains Sign Talk' is preferred in Canada, with 'Indian' being considered pejorative by many. Hence, publications and reports on the language vary in naming conventions according to origin.Profanity in American Sign Language
American Sign Language (ASL), the sign language used by the deaf community throughout most of North America, has a rich vocabulary of terms, which include profanity. Within deaf culture, there is a distinction drawn between signs used to curse versus signs that are used to describe sexual acts. In usage, signs to describe detailed sexual behavior are highly taboo due to their graphic nature. As for the signs themselves, some signs do overlap, but they may also vary according to usage. For example, the sign for "shit" when used to curse is different from the sign for "shit" when used to describe the bodily function or the fecal matter.Si5s
si5s is a writing system for American Sign Language that resembles a handwritten form of SignWriting. It was devised in 2003 in New York City by Robert Arnold, with an unnamed collaborator. In July 2010 at the Deaf Nation World Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada, it was presented and formally announced to the public. Soon after its release, si5s development split into two branches: the "official" si5s track monitored by Arnold and a new set of partners at ASLized, and the "open source" ASLwrite. In 2015, Arnold had a falling out with his ASLized partners, took down the si5s.org website, and made his Twitter account private. ASLized has since removed any mention of si5s from their website.
Arnold completed his Masters thesis, "A Proposal Of the Written System For ASL," at Gallaudet University in 2007, looking at the need for a written form for ASL, and proposing the use of si5s. si5s stresses that the "written system is not to offer readers and scholars how sign language functions but how signers think and communicate in sign language." Its objective is to provide transparency between ASL, as a written language, and other written languages, to allow for a literary study of sign language without glossing.
Arnold is currently a faculty member of the Sign Language & Interpreting program at Mt. San Antonio College.Stokoe notation
Stokoe notation () is the first phonemic script used for sign languages. It was created by William Stokoe for American Sign Language (ASL), with Latin letters and numerals used for the shapes they have in fingerspelling, and iconic glyphs to transcribe the position, movement, and orientation of the hands. It was first published as the organizing principle of Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf (1960), and later also used in A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, by Stokoe et al. (1965). In the 1965 dictionary, signs are themselves arranged alphabetically, according to their Stokoe transcription, rather than being ordered by their English glosses as in other sign-language dictionaries. This made it the only ASL dictionary where the reader could look up a sign without first knowing how to translate it into English. The Stokoe notation was later adapted to British Sign Language (BSL) in Kyle et al. (1985) and to Australian Aboriginal sign languages in Kendon (1988). In each case the researchers modified the alphabet to accommodate phonemes not found in ASL.
The Stokoe notation is mostly restricted to linguists and academics. The notation is arranged linearly on the page and can be written with a typewriter that has the proper font installed. Unlike SignWriting or the Hamburg Notation System, it is based on the Latin alphabet and is phonemic, being restricted to the symbols needed to meet the requirements of ASL (or extended to BSL, etc.) rather than accommodating all possible signs. For example, there is a single symbol for circling movement, regardless of whether the plane of the movement is horizontal or vertical.Varieties of American Sign Language
American Sign Language (ASL) developed in the United States and Canada, but has spread around the world. Local varieties have developed in many countries, but there is little research on which should be considered dialects of ASL (such as Bolivian Sign Language) and which have diverged to the point of being distinct languages (such as Malaysian Sign Language).
The following are sign language varieties of ASL in countries other than the US and Canada, languages based on ASL with substratum influence from local sign languages, and mixed languages in which ASL is a component. Distinction follow political boundaries, which may not correspond to linguistic boundaries.
|Pidgins, creoles and mixed|
Languages in italics are extinct.
(number of speakers
in 2010 in millions)
Italics indicate extinct languages
Italics indicate extinct languages * indicates extinct language in Oklahoma but still spoken elsewhere
|Oral Indigenous |
|Pidgins, creoles and mixed|
|Oral Indigenous |
|Oral Indigenous |
Italics indicate extinct languages
^a Sign-language names reflect the region of origin. Natural sign languages are not related to the spoken language used in the same region. For example, French Sign Language originated in France, but is not related to French. ^b Denotes the number (if known) of languages within the family. No further information is given on these languages.