Sign Language 101: Where it comes from and how to master the basics

April 02, 2022
By Sarah Angela Almaden
YouTube / Marvel Entertainment

YouTube / Marvel Entertainment

Okay, let’s play a game and don’t consult gracious Google on this one. Take a guess of how many sign languages there are in the world.

Did you guess about 300? Yes, there are roughly 300 different sign languages in the world! This is probably because there is no such thing as universal sign language.

In fact, each of the 300 sign languages is unique, possessing cultural elements specific to its country that developed slowly. Sign languages differ greatly based on region, just like dialects. For example, British Sign Language is totally different from American Sign Language and both sign languages are very different from Chinese Sign Language.

Sign language is used as a primary language by over 70 MILLION deaf people around the globe, and it’s also used by hearing people as well. That’s a lot of language to learn! Like other languages, sign follows a set of grammar and syntax rules that have developed over time.

Timeline of Sign Language

  • 5th century BC – earliest written record of sign language noted in Cratylus by Plato
  • 16th century – manual alphabet (fingerspelling) created by Spanish Benedictine monk Pedro Ponce de Léon
  • 1620 – first guide of signed phonetic alphabet issued in Madrid by Juan Pablo Bonet
  • 1648 – English physician John Bulwer records use of manual alphabet for communication by deaf man known as Master Babington
  • 1680 – Didascalocophus or The deaf and dead mans tutor by George Dalgarmo published, focuses on how letters are formed by pointing to various joints of the left hand's fingers and palm
  • 1692 – Charles de La Fin writes book about alphabet system in which the first letter of a word is represented by pointing to a specific body part and vowels are located on fingertips
  • 1698 – pamphlet featuring consonants of modern alphabets published in Digiti Lingua magazine
  • 1720 – British manual alphabet develops and becomes more widely used
  • 1755 – first school for deaf children founded by Abbé de l’Epée in Paris (now called Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris)
  • 1817 – American School for the Deaf founded in Connecticut by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a friend of Laurent Clerc who was a famous alumni of l’Epée’s school
  • 1857 – National Deaf-Mute College founded by Edward Miner Gallaudet in Washington D.C., now called Gallaudet University, remains the only liberal arts school for deaf people in the world

International Sign Language

International Sign (IS) is not a universal sign language but considered to be a pidgin language because the meaning of the sign is determined between the signers who lack a shared sign language. However, some experts disagree with this classification. International Sign, a phrase used by the World Federation of the Deaf and other international institutions, is also known as Gestuno, International Sign Pidgin, or International Gesture (IG).

IS is commonly used in global meetings like the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), the Deaflympics, Eurovision, European Union meetings, UN Conferences, Miss & Mister Deaf World, and in other informal traveling and social events.

History of International Sign

The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) is an international organization founded on September 23, 1951 in Rome, Italy at the first World Congress. At this meeting the need for an international standardized sign was discussed, and as a result, The Commission of Unification of Signs published an international language guide for the deaf people called Gestuno: International Sign Language of the Deaf. Gestuno, meaning gesture and oneness, contains a vocabulary of easy signs that are commonly used in different countries.

Unfortunately, when the guide was first used at the 1976 WFD conference in Bulgaria, it presented a problem for the deaf delegates because it was so difficult to comprehend. For this reason, the deaf community and hearing interpreters modified Gestuno, combining linguistic and grammatical characteristics considered to be universal across international sign languages. The 5th World Conference on Deafness was held in Copenhagen in 1977, where they organized the first Gestuno training course.

Over the years, the term Gestuno has been phased out, replaced by the term International Sign (IS). The term IS is widely used in English to refer to this particular type of sign. Interestingly, International Sign actually has little in common with the signs mentioned in Gestuno.

American Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL) originated in the early 19th century in the American School for the Deaf founded by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Dr. Mason Cogswell, and Laurent Clerc. ASL is widely used in schools and in Deaf communities in the United States, most of Canada and in the other parts of the world like West Africa and Southeast Asia.

British Sign Language

British Sign Language (BSL) is the preferred sign language among the Deaf community in the UK. It is believed to have been used as early as the 16th century.

BSL is also regionally and generationally diverse, much like the British language itself. In fact, throughout the United Kingdom, several regional signs for the same word exist, and you can see differences in use from generation to generation.

Indo-Pakistani Sign Language

Indo-Pakistani Sign Language (IPSL) is by far the most widely used sign language in South Asia, with around 15 million users. According to Ethnologue, IPSL is ranked as the 151st most spoken language in the world. The International Standards Organization distinguishes four varieties of the language such as Indian Sign Language, Pakistan Sign Language, and Nepalese Sign Language.

Spanish Sign Language

Spanish Sign Language (SSL) is the language used in the Deaf community of Spain, with the exception of the people from Catalonia, Valencia, Canary Islands, Basque Country, Andalusia, and Galicia. SSL is also believed to have influenced the development of Venezuelan Sign Language.

Sign Language in Pop Culture

Signing is a way to convey emotions, express opinions, thoughts, and ideas, not just with hands but with body language. You can see sign language depicted in pop culture, like in television shows, movies, and even in music videos and at concerts.

In the television show called Switched at Birth, deaf characters and American Sign Language are represented, which brought awareness of the deaf culture to mainstream television. The show even featured an all-ASL episode in which the students at the fictional Carlton School for the Deaf had a rally, inspired by a real-life protest at Gallaudet University called “Deaf President Now.”

In the Marvel Studios movie Eternals, the first deaf superhero named Makkari used ASL to talk to her fellow superheroes. Lauren Ridloff, the actor who plays Makkari, also starred in a Broadway production called Children of a Lesser God. Signing was not an issue for Ridloff as everything she communicated was translated by her co-actor.

In the world of music, the use of sign language is not something new. In fact, sign language is included in several music videos. In the American Author’s song called “Pride,” the video stars Sandra Mae Frank, a graduate of Gallaudet University. In the video, we can see Frank signing the song with such intensity that you can feel the emotions radiating through the screen.

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