Chapter Sign Languages

by Ulrike Zeshan

Please note: This is an introduction to Chapters 139 (Irregular Negatives in Sign Languages) and 140 (Question Particles in Sign Languages).

1. Sign languages

Sign languages are natural human languages that have arisen wherever deaf people have come together in sufficient numbers to form a linguistic community. From the 1960s onwards, sign language researchers have demonstrated that sign languages are fully complex human languages with an intricate grammatical organization of their own and are in every way to be considered on a par with spoken languages (e.g. Klima and Bellugi 1979; Boyes Braem 1990; Sutton-Spence and Woll 1999). They do, however, constitute a separate linguistic type of their own by virtue of the fact that information is transmitted in a visual-gestural modality rather than a vocal-auditory modality. 

Although sign language research has made much progress in the past decades, most sign languages in the world remain hardly described or entirely undocumented. The bulk of linguistic work has been done on only a few sign languages in industrialized countries, in particular in the United States, while barely anything is known about most sign languages in Asia, Africa, South America and Central America. 

2. Sign language typology

Although sign languages are of great potential interest to linguistic typology, they have so far not figured in any cross-linguistic typological survey, chiefly due to the unavailability of data. The two chapters on sign languages in this volume have resulted from the first large-scale typological survey of language structures across sign languages around the world, investigating negative and interrogative constructions (cf. Zeshan 2004a, 2004b). The chapters on question particles and irregular negatives are based on these data, which have mostly been specifically generated for the survey and have previously been unpublished. 

Since it has only just become possible to do typological surveys of sign languages, the criteria for dealing with the data are necessarily different from the spoken language surveys in this volume. Rather than sampling the languages, as is customary for spoken language typology, any and all available information has been included in the sign language survey. This amounts to the 39 sign languages that are listed in Table 1 below.

Most sign languages in the data are used as primary languages in urban deaf communities, and Sections 3 and 4 below apply to this situation only. In addition, there are two contact sign varieties and three village-based sign languages in the data. Plains-Indians Sign Language, now an endangered language, is a contact sign variety used among a number of North-American Indian tribes whose spoken languages are mutually unintelligible (Taylor 1996). International Sign is a sign pidgin that has developed in international settings as a result of contact between deaf users of different sign languages from Europe and North America (Webb and Supalla 1994). Urubú Sign Language, used among an Indian tribe in Brazil (first reported by Kakumasu 1966), Kata Kolok in Bali (Branson et al. 1996), and Adamorobe Sign Language in Ghana (Frishberg 1987) are village-based sign languages that have arisen locally due to a high proportion of deaf individuals. 

Although the availability of data necessarily results in an over-representation of European sign languages, all regions of the world are represented in the data. The regional distribution of sign languages amounts to 15 European sign languages, 11 Asian sign languages, six sign languages from the Americas, four African sign languages and two Australasian sign languages. Relationships between the sign languages in terms of genealogical grouping and language contact are described in the next section. 

Table 1. Sign languages in the typological survey

Sign language


Adamorobe Sign Language 

Adamorobe village (Ghana)

American Sign Language (ASL)

United States, Canada except Québec



British Sign Language (BSL)

United Kingdom

Chinese Sign Language

mainland China

Deutsche Gebärdensprache (DGS)


Finnish Sign Language (Suomalainen viittomakieli)


Greek Sign Language


Hong Kong Sign Language

Hong Kong (China)

Indo-Pakistani Sign Languages

India, Pakistan

International Sign


Irish Sign Language


Islenskt Taknmal (Icelandic Sign Language)


Israeli Sign Language


Kata Kolok

Desa Kolok village (Bali) 

Kenyan Sign Language


Langue des Signes Française (LSF)


Langue des Signes Québecoise (LSQ)

Québec (Canada

Lengua de Señas Argentina


Lengua de Señas Española

Spain except Catalonia 

Língua de Sinais Brasileira


Língua Gestual Portuguesa


Lingua Italiana dei Segni (LIS)


Lughat al-Isharat al-Lubnaniya


Nederlandse Gebarentaal


New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL)

New Zealand

Nihon Shuwa (Japanese Sign Language)


Norsk Tegnspråk


Plains-Indians Sign Language

United States

Russian Sign Language

central part of Russia

South Korean Sign Language

South Korea

Svenska Teckenspråket


Taiwanese Sign Language (Ziran Shouyu)


Tanzania Sign Language (Lugha ya Alama Tanzania)


Thai Sign Language


Türk İşaret Dili


Ugandan Sign Language


Urubú Sign Language


Vlaamse Gebarentaal

Flemish part of Belgium

3. Relationships between sign languages

Relationships between languages are of two types: genealogical relationships and language contact. The first type of relationship pertains to language families, while the second type of relationship has to do with areal typology. However, the kinds of situations known to hold between spoken languages do not necessarily present themselves in the same way for sign languages. It is not at all clear how genealogical relationships should be defined and described for sign languages, and no one has attempted to apply the familiar historical-comparative method to sign languages. In fact, this may well be impossible for a number of reasons. For example, no equivalent to regular sound change has yet been found in any sign language.

It is, however, possible to link sign languages to each other because, as far as we know, most sign languages in their present form are young languages with a documented history. This history is often linked to, but not limited to, the beginnings of special education systems for the deaf. In a number of cases, special education for the deaf was first brought to a country from abroad, including the importation of some influence from the sign language of that other country. This potentially results in creolization of pre-existing indigenous forms of sign languages, sign pidgins, or so-called “home sign” systems (the latter two being less developed forms of gestural communication) with a foreign sign language. For example, American Sign Language is believed to have arisen from a creolization situation involving French Sign Language and pre-existing local sign varieties. While relationships between sign languages can thus be posited on the basis of historical knowledge, it is not clear whether these relationships can be considered “genealogical” in the same sense of the term as it is applied to spoken languages. With all due caution, associations among some of the sign languages in the data are proposed in Table 2, without attempting a more sophisticated definition of the kind of relationship involved. 

Table 2. Relationships between sign languages

British Sign Language — Auslan — New Zealand Sign Language 

Nihon Shuwa — Taiwanese Sign Language — South Korean Sign Language 

Langue de Signes Française — American Sign Language — Russian Sign Language — Nederlandse Gebarentaal (Northern dialect) — Vlaamse Gebarentaal — Langue des Signes Québecoise (LSF and ASL influence) — Irish Sign Language — Língua de Sinais Brasileira 

Deutsche Gebärdensprache — (perhaps also other sign languages in Europe and the Middle East) - Israeli Sign Language 

Svenska Teckenspråket — Finnish Sign Language 

American Sign Language — Ugandan Sign Language — Thai Sign Language — Kenyan Sign Language 

Lingua Italiana dei Segni — Lengua de Señas Argentina 

Chinese Sign Language — Hong Kong Sign Language 

As a general caveat to Table 2, it should be noted that the evidence is often more of an anecdotal nature rather than being the result of specific linguistic or historical research, which has yet to be undertaken in almost all cases. Where historical connections are not known or have yet to be discovered, there is currently no established way of positing relationships between sign languages. And it is of course entirely possible for a full-fledged sign language to arise on its own, without any influence from elsewhere. 

The effects of language contact between sign languages are also barely understood at present. Sign languages seem to be very dynamic, and readily share and borrow both lexical and grammatical material almost on a world-wide basis. It seems to take very little time for a sign language to change considerably, and the impact of language contact can be quite noticeable over a relatively short period of time. Thus American Sign Language has had considerable influence on a number of sign languages worldwide during the period after the Second World War. Language contact between signed and spoken languages is described in the following section. 

4. Relationships between signed and spoken languages

Since sign languages in any country constitute a linguistic minority, practically all sign language users are bilingual to some extent in the sign language and the surrounding spoken language or languages. Another link between the signed and the spoken language is constituted by the hearing children of deaf parents, who grow up using both sign and speech and are often fully bilingual in both languages. Deaf people’s spoken language competence and hearing people’s sign language competence, where the sign language is acquired as a second language, vary considerably and are often rather poor, especially in countries with few educational and technical resources. Nevertheless, the constant contact with the spoken-language always opens up the possibility of spoken language influence on the sign language and borrowing of linguistic material from the spoken language. The mechanisms, extent and history of this kind of language contact are, however, far from being well understood for most sign languages in the world.

For the purposes of the sign language chapters (139, 140) in this section, we need to focus on a particular type of language contact, the use of contrived sign systems intended to mirror the structure of a spoken language. This is certainly one of the most powerful ways in which a spoken language can exert influence on a sign language, but since such systems are not in use everywhere, their existence also involves interesting typological questions. Contrived hybrid sign systems are predominantly used in educational settings, often as a tool intended to teach the structure of the spoken language. The systems are known by names such as Signed English, Signed Japanese, Dutch in Signs, and the like. They use sign language vocabulary, but with the signs appearing in the order of the corresponding sentences from the spoken language. Sign-language-specific morphology is omitted, and morphemes that have no equivalent in the sign language are added, usually in the form of artificially invented signs for items such as articles, prepositions, inflectional endings, and so on. This may also involve the use of a manual alphabet which makes it possible to “fingerspell” words from the spoken language with letters represented by certain hand configurations. Depending on the degree of morphological difference between the signed and the spoken language, the utterance in the contrived hybrid system may be only a partial representation of the spoken language.

To the extent that deaf sign language users are exposed to these systems, usually during their education, they become bilingual to some extent in the primary sign language and the contrived sign system. At this point, aspects of the contrived system may influence the primary sign language, so that, for example, a novel sign representing a particle or a preposition from the spoken language starts being used in the primary sign language as well. This has happened in the case of some of the question particles, as discussed in more detail in Chapter 140 on question particles. Contrived sign systems are used in many European countries, in Israel, in the English-speaking world including North America, Australasia, and parts of Africa (e.g. Uganda), as well as in some East Asian countries (Japan, Taiwan). Comparable systems are not in use to represent spoken languages in the South Asian subcontinent, in some other parts of Africa (e.g. Tanzania), in the Arabic-speaking world, and in Turkey.

5. Importance of sign language typology

Sign languages are of great theoretical interest to linguistics in general and to linguistic typology in particular. We are only just beginning to understand the similarities and differences across sign languages on the one hand and between signed and spoken languages on the other. The two chapters (139, 140) in this section present examples of the kind of linguistic diversity that can be found across sign languages. As more and more data from genealogically and geographically unrelated sign languages become available, we will gain a better understanding of the nature of typological variation across sign languages, and typological linguistics will be in a better position to make empirically substantiated generalizations across this visual-gestural linguistic type. Contrasting these results with spoken languages will then open up important new perspectives for our understanding of human language as a whole.

6. Transcription conventions

The examples from various sign languages presented in the two chapters (139, 140) in this section have been transcribed in a way that is widely used in sign language linguistics. The transcription consists of a line with glosses in capital letters representing the manual signs, and a line on top indicating the co-occurrence of nonmanual features such as facial expressions, head movements, and the like.

The following abbreviations and symbols have been used in the examples: 


second person pronoun 


negative headshake 


interrogative facial expression 


interrogative facial expression in polar questions 

a hyphen is used when more than one word is needed to gloss a single sign, e.g. the sign NOT-WANT 

a `plus` symbol is used to gloss compounds, e.g. the compound sign HAVE+NOT-HAVE 

Graphic representations of some signs have also been added for illustration, with arrows indicating movement of the hands.