Updated on Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Category: History, Languages
Many types of sign language are in use all around the world, and some are as different from each other as their spoken counterparts. You might assume that different types of sign language are essentially similar — but this is not the case.
Just like spoken languages, sign languages differ significantly from one geographic region to the next, and they are rarely mutually intelligible. Read on to find out more about some of the different types of sign language and how they developed.
Early Types of Sign Language: Plains Indian and French
Although Plains Indian Sign Language is one of the first known sign language systems — and is considered extremely important in the history of sign languages — it is rarely used today. As is the case with so many other Native American languages, the number of people fluent in Plains Indian “hand talk” is dwindling to the brink of vanishing. Efforts to reinvigorate the Plains Indian Sign Language are now being made in hopes of preserving it for future generations.
Another early type of sign language is French Sign Language (LSF, for langue des signes française). Developed by Abbe Charles-Michel de L’Epee during the 18th century, the early LSF system permitted individuals to spell out words using a manual alphabet and to express concepts using hand and arm movements.
L’Epee’s techniques were unique in Europe at the time, as previous efforts to develop communication systems for the deaf and hearing-impaired on the continent had focused on teaching verbal speech.
American and British Sign Languages
American Sign Language (ASL) was largely based on LSF, which was brought to North America by Thomas Gallaudet in 1816. Similarities between the two systems are still apparent today, though a person who is fluent in American Sign Language will not be able to communicate effectively with those who use LSF.
ASL remains extremely popular today, although it is now facing some competition from cued speech, a system developed in the 1960s that represents phonetic signs rather than words and concepts.
Due to their historical relationship, French and American Sign Language actually have more in common than American and British Sign Language (BSL) do. Even the basic finger-spelling systems of BSL and ASL are different — for instance, BSL uses two hands while ASL uses only one.
Types of Sign Language: Geography Matters
The difference between ASL and BSL, which both developed in English-speaking countries, highlights the fact that types of sign language are not necessarily (in fact, rarely) based on verbal speech.
If a single spoken-English-based sign language system had been developed, then the sign language systems in the US and Britain should be mutually intelligible, with primary differences mirroring those between spoken American and British English — vocabulary, idioms, etc.
The case of ASL and BSL highlights the fact that sign languages — like spoken languages — develop largely along geographic lines.
Any type of language or communication system develops among groups of people who come into physical contact with one another and therefore have a need for communication, as was the case with different tribes of Plains Indians who didn’t share a spoken language but sometimes met with one another on the North American plains.
A Modern Type of Sign Language: Nicaraguan Sign Language
Nicaraguan Sign Language, a system that developed only within the past 40 years, offers a compelling example of how sign language systems develop within a geographically-bound community.
In the 1970s, the development of better schools for those with disabilities, including the hearing-impaired, first permitted larger numbers of deaf and hearing-impaired people in Nicaragua to congregate and learn in one place.
Within a decade, a rudimentary Nicaraguan Sign Language system had been developed thanks to this newly-founded community, whose individuals needed a means of common communication.
It is also important to note that Nicaraguan Sign Language is very different in structure from the Spanish language, which again shows how types of sign language develop like independent languages — simply as a means of communication among community members — rather than being based on spoken languages.
It might be tempting to think that types of sign language are essentially similar. However, history proves otherwise: the types of sign language in use around the world have divergent histories, shaped by unique cultural traditions.