My boyfriend is deaf. When I met him 5 ½ years ago, he was only the second deaf person I had ever properly met who didn't have any spoken English. Although we could communicate satisfactorily through writing, it immediately became clear to me that I would have to learn sign language.
First, I had to overcome some preconceptions and misapprehensions:
Sign languages are languages comparable to any other human natural language
Sign language uses mainly the same language areas of the brain that are used in spoken language, rather than the motor areas that are used in, say, juggling (I experience an interesting phenomenon when John 'shouts' – makes energetic signs – in BSL: my ears hurt as if someone is physically talking loudly; my friend Les, while struggling to remember the sign for 'rain' blurted out 'la pluie', interchanging a signed 'foreign' word for a spoken one). BSL has all the features that define language, including arbitrary form-meaning relationships, a finite number of components that recombine to make an infinite number of utterances. It has phonology (sometimes called cheirology), grammar (actually very distinct from English), it has metaphor and idiom, puns, poetry and rhyme (using similarity in hand shape rather than similarity in sound), slang, accents, dialects, formality and informality etc, etc.
One major area in which BSL is lacking is that it has no written form and therefore no body of written literature.
It is a natural language
This means, like all the other mother tongues on Earth, it is another manifestation of the universal human language instinct and evolved spontaneously as a result of a community of people trying to communicate. It was not invented by missionaries, nurses or teachers. An artificial British sign language was invented in the mid 20th century called the Paget-Gorman system, which, as far as I know, has largely disappeared under the resurgence of BSL, going the way of all well-intentioned artificial languages (which are doomed to failure for the same reasons that genetic engineering cannot match the results of natural selection).
BSL is the 3rd most used native language of the British Isles
It has 50-70,000 deaf users, added to a considerable (but undetermined) number of hearing bilinguals and learners. Number 2 is Welsh.
It has a long history
The first record of sign language between deaf people in Britain was a wedding in Leicester in the 16th century where the vows were signed. Daniel Defoe published a fingerspelling alphabet (pictured above). It's reasonable to assume that anywhere where deaf people lived together that signing of some kind developed (as happened when Nicaragua opened its first deaf school in the 1980s, when, for the only time in history, researchers witnessed the birth of a new language). BSL was suppressed in the early 20th century by educationalists who believed that signing would prevent a child from learning speech and lip reading, with the monstrous result that many deaf children grew up without a first language, without a medium to fully express themselves.
It is structurally unrelated to English and has its own grammar
- It has classifiers (like Chinese), where nouns are grouped according to their characteristics (e.g. animal, wide & flat, tall & thin, round etc), and has a far wider range of pronouns than English (e.g. an inanimate singular noun can only be represented in English by it, but in BSL there are a whole range of inanimate pronouns depending on their characteristics).
- Verbs can be modified by their subject or object.
- Word order is flexible (unlike strict SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT in English), and the strongest organising principle is (in common with many languages, including Japanese) TOPIC-COMMENT (e.g. exam, Zoe's passed or Mary, she's pregnant).
- BSL, (in common with about half of native American, African and Papuan languages) distinguishes between inalienable (permanent) possession and alienable (temporary) possession, so the my in my brother takes a different form to the my in my cup of coffee.
Although it has many features that are vastly different to English, BSL, with its users being thinly scattered throughout an English-speaking nation, is heavily influenced by the dominant tongue. The fingerspelling system represents English letters when signing names of people and places, and are incorporated into many signs (many family relationships and days of the week use the initial letters of the English words; do and if can be spelled out as in English). Lip movement is an important component of a sign (it's not all just in the hands), and often silently follows the lip pattern of the equivalent English word; the sign for husband and wife both indicate the ring, the difference showing in the lips movement. Sign language can also follow closely English word order and grammar in a form of sign language called Sign Supported English (SSE). In its most 'English' form, SSE is used to teach profoundly deaf children English and literacy, using one sign = one English word and even sometimes including the English morphological endings, like -s, -ed, -ing; in its common form, it is a preferred form of signing for many users (depending on their education or upbringing), which has many elements of BSL, but with a more English pattern (e.g. SSE would sign the dog jumped over the fence DOG JUMP OVER FENCE; BSL would sign DOG then make the classifier for animal in the right hand and move it over the left hand representing FENCE). There is a continuum between BSL and SSE, different users moving between one or the other in different situations.
Sign Languages have some features not commonly found in spoken tongues
- Multiple signs can be produced simultaneously, i.e. one in each hand + face. They were surprised to meet each other on the stairs can only be expressed in English as a string, one word at a time. In sign language these 10 words can be shown (as it actually happened in real life) as one event in a single sign. This is how (even though hands move slower than tongues) sign translations take the same amount of time as speech.
- Use is made of space to accurately show relationships between things. Try explaining the offside rule in English without using your hands or a diagram: it's sooo much easier and more accurate in sign language.
- Unlike spoken words, many signs have a physical or metaphorical similarity to the things they represent, making sign vocabulary easy to learn, improvisation and creativity possible, and a more subtle and poetic representation of many ideas.
Sign Language is not international
While BSL and Auslan (in Australia) and New Zealand sign language are related and mutually intelligable, Irish Sign language is not. American Sign Language is (because of the quirks of deaf education history) related to French sign language, and is not comprehensible to either Irish or British signers. So, while the patterns of distribution are different, sign languages around the world vary as they do for spoken languages, and for the the same reasons. Languages are codes of cooperation maintained through interconnected webs of communicators: where connections are rare, the codes will inevitably diverge.
There is an international sign language, Gestuno, used in international deaf conferences. I've never met anyone who uses it, but I suspect either it's heavily biased (like Esperanto) towards a small group of natural sign languages, or else it's so general it pleases nobody.