by Hajung Kim
April 2013

The concept and idea of signlanguage is evolving slowly around the world. Over time, the people who are deaf have begun to make visual language to allow them to communicate using hand and mouth movements. This visual language came to be known as sign language, and includes hand motion, hand shape, hand location, facial expression, body posture, and sometimes mouth movements. These features of sign language allow the deaf to easily communicate and to be educated in special schools for the deaf. All sign languages share the basics, such as hand and body motions, but how they utilize them differ around the world. However, there are some similarities. Today, many sign languages are continually developing and more people are taking an interest in analyzing communication along with gestures, and how the deaf process these features. To further understand the developments of sign language in the modern world, it is crucial to look at the origins of sign language and learn its differences and similarities around the world.

Although many believe that sign language is difficult and complicated, the basics help to interpret the different sign languages easily. There are five basic parts in American Sign Language (ASL): hand shape, location, orientation, movement, and expression (Donnelly, 2011). Although it is specified that the five basics apply to ASL, the same basics exist in other sign languages as well. According to Donnelly, “how the hands are shaped when making signs can change the meaning of the word or expression…” (Donnelly, 2011, para. 1). For location, “sign area relates to where the hands are held during signing. They can be against the head or other parts of the body, depending on what you are saying” (Donnelly, 2011, para. 3). Orientation is crucial because it “refers to which way the hands are facing” because where the hands face can alter meanings (Donnelly, 2011, para. 2). Movement is significant because it plays a major role in passing on one’s thoughts, and wrong movements can indicate other meaning (Donnelly, 2011, para. 4). Lastly, facial expression plays a role in adding emotion when communicating (Donnelly, 2011, para. 5). These five basics apply to all sign languages as an important tool for effective communication.

One well-known similarity between ASL and French Sign Language (LSF) goes back to history. Apparently, “the language used by deaf people in the United States is a blend of signs brought from France early in the 19th century” (“History of Sign Language,” n.d., para. 1). The French or LSF is what initiated the formation of ASL, which is considered as the most developed sign language. However, the LSF did not just influence the formation of ASL, but also contributed to the formation of the Mexican Sign Language (LSM). ASL and LSM are similar because of geographical reasons and their ties to the LSF. The LSM development began when a deaf Frenchman, Edouard Huet, came to Mexico City (Quinto-Pozos, 2008, p. 167). When Huet arrived, he “established a school for deaf children in Mexico City,” and it is assumed that he was fluent in LSF. This led to the belief that the invention of LSM was influenced by Huet’s use of LSF (Quinto-Pozos, 2008, p. 167-168). For the invention of ASL, a Frenchman named Laurent Clerc had the most influence after he arrived in the United States in 1816 to spread sign language (Quinto-Pozos, 2008, p. 168). Through the influence of Huet and Clerc, three distinct sign languages have come to share similarities, which demonstrates that languages are connected by the influence of people despite their distinctions and geography.

Another similitude has to do with hand shape between ASL and Chinese Sign Language (CSL). The likeness between the two specifically deals with the closed fist motion with the hand, and although two motions look similar, their meanings completely differ. The closed fist hand motion in ASL means ‘secret’ while it means ‘father’ in CSL (Quinto-Pozos, 2008, p. 167). The closed fist hand motion in ASL is more “relaxed, with fingers loosely curved as they close against the palm” (as cited in Quinto-Pozos, 2008, p. 167). The CSL “handshape displays fingers that are rigid, not curved, and folded over further onto the palm” (Quinto-Pozos, 2008, p. 167). Even though the two have the same basic frame of the hand motion, the shape and grip slightly differ, demonstrating that similarities and differences can exist in the same motion in sign languages and showing a variety of ways of interpreting signs.

Even if there are similarities, there are more differences among sign languages. For example, one of the main differences is found in LSM itself. According Quinto-Pozos, the sign language acquired by the Mexican deaf people slightly differs depending on their age because LSM has been developing each year. Most of the variation in the sign language comes from the urban areas, but depending on situations, “variation appears at the phonological rather than the lexical level” (Quinto-Pozos, 2008, p. 168). The reason for the variations is because of dialectical influence from different regions and it mostly affects the hand-shape movements (Quinto-Pozos, 2008, p. 168). An additional important factor for variance is “religious differences between signers […], levels of education, and geographical distribution of signers…” (Quinto-Pozos, 2008, p. 168). The same general LSM is used throughout Mexico, but depending on the region and people, the same sign language differs. This represents that sign language is open to many variations rather than being fixed. This helps to illustrate that differences in sign language can come from people and places within the country, and not only from other countries around the world, breaking the notion of language barriers. It is fascinating to see that just like spoken language and its different accent from certain regions, the sign language functions the same way according to certain regions and people.

In addition, interesting finger motions showing feelings and mood can be found in the Mongolian Sign Language (MSL). Even though the finger motion mostly has to do with the feelings and moods, MSL uses more finger movements than any other sign language making MSL more different than other sign languages. For example, ring finger indicates the feeling ‘not very good’ while the index finger means ‘pretty good’ (Healy, 2011, p. 577). As each finger indicates certain feelings, the pinky is more special because it deals with bad feeling or mood. The pinky movement with different hand-shape represents multiple feelings within the category of ‘bad feeling.’ For instance of bad thought, the ulnar side of the pinky is moved “up the side of the face by the eye, keeping contact with the face throughout the movement,” and this describes “untrustworthy or evil person” (Healy, 2011,  p. 578). For the ‘feeling bad’ sign, the pinky gets “extended over the heart, combined with nonmanual features such as such as slumped shoulders, lowered head, and furrowed brow…” (Healy, 2011, p. 578). The examples of ‘bad thought’ and ‘feeling bad’ are the two broad categories of pinky signs and within these, there are more negative signs involving the pinky such as: argue, unfriend, divorce, bad health, and very ill (Healy, 2011). In MSL, most of the feelings are expressed using specific fingers, especially the pinky, with only different hand movements. This unique characteristic of finger usage is what makes MSL distinct and more complicated to learn than other sign languages.

The sign languages share many similarities, but the similarities are limited. Ultimately, there are more differences. Therefore, international sign language was created in order to allow deaf people around the world to communicate despite the sign language barriers. The international sign language is referred to as ‘Gestuno’ and it is very useful during international events, such as the Olympics, for the deaf (“History of Sign Language,” n.d., para. 4). Also, sign language is becoming more popular because there are National Theater for the deaf as well as signed interpretation of music “portraying the lyrics, emotions and the rhythm of the songs” (“History of Sign Language,” n.d., para. 4). Today, more colleges are offering sign language for credit in foreign language or for general credit acknowledging sign language as official curriculum (“History of Sign Language,” n.d., para. 4). Sign language has gained more respect over the years and is continually growing to enhance communication among the deaf.

Overall, sign languages around the world have a number of similarities and differences that make them unique and appealing to examine. Beginning with sign language’s invention using just the hands and mouth, it has developed significantly with the efforts of deaf people, such as Edouard Huet. These efforts made sign language standardized among the deaf, allowing effective communication. Not only the deaf, but more people are becoming interested in sign language and are choosing to learn it for further research or educational purposes. Notably, the similarities among ASL, LSF, and LSM show that languages are connected despite their own standardizations and country barriers, but at the same time, the differences among the sign languages show the prominent features of each sign language for a specific country. Altogether, sign language is another way for people to communicate and interact.

References

Donnelly, J. (2011, June 15). What are the parts of signs in ASL?. eHOW. Retrieved from http://www.ehow.com/info_8600538_parts-signs-asl.html

Healy, C. (2011). Pinky extension as a phonestheme in Mongolian Sign Language. Sign Language Studies, 11(4), 575-593, 659-660. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/874488984?accountid=27975

Nancy and Hilary. History of sign language. ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation. Retrieved from http://library.thinkquest.org/J002931/dev.thinkquest.org/history_of_sign_language.htm

Quinto-Pozos, D. (2008). Sign language contact and interference: ASL and LSM. Language in Society, 37(2), 161-189. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/204658579?accountid=27975

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