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Types of Sign Language and Their Development

By Alison at Accredited Language
Updated on Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Category: History, Languages

Two hands form a heart shape

Image by Leon Brocard

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.

7 Responses to “Types of Sign Language and Their Development”

  1. Delaine Says:

    Sign language can not be spoken, if you would like to keep your readers interested you might want to change this. I am a sister of a Deaf and just letting you know Deaf do not like to see people who publish things about them when they do not know what they are talking about. And might I add this is in the first sentence.

  2. Dan at Accredited Language Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Delaine — you’re right, of course, and I apologize for the mistake. I’ve adjusted the post accordingly.

  3. Delaine Says:

    thanks so much,

  4. Robert Says:

    Abbe Charles-Michel de L’Epee didn’t actually invent French Sign Language; he was one of the first people to be working with deaf French children, and learned it from them. I believe the misconception that he invented LSF comes from the fact that he created a set of methodical signs that tried to impose a French-like grammar on LSF (which was of course a language completely independent of spoken French).

  5. An Unexpected Find « Signing with Time Says:

    […] […]

  6. jackie Says:

    I have foiund this website to be informative especially with the input from those who are immersed in the deaf community. I had my first exposure to a deaf person when I was a child altough intrigued, I did nothing with my curiosity until a few years ago when I purchased an ASL book “The Joy of Signing” I am in the process of teaching myself and my grand- daughter how to use the appropiate signs and how to correlate the facial expressions for the most effective and proper use of the language. I have felt this urge to go beyond my own bubble of commmunication and didn’t want to learn what I call the traditional languages; Spanish, French and so-forth. This has allowed me to reach back into my childhood. If only I had taken an interest sooner.

  7. Adam Grinnell Says:

    I think that Alison knows what she is talking about. just a few typos and that is all.

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