By Kamil Wiśniewski, Aug. 12th, 2007

Sign language is a means of communication developed by deaf people to communicate their thoughts. Although for a long time it had been neglected by linguists and its use by deaf children discouraged by their teachers it is now considered a natural language, and something more than ‘mere gestures’. Moreover, contrary to popular beliefs sign languages differ depending on the country of use, so Germans who learnt it in Germany might have difficulties when using it with Americans using American sign language.

It need clarifying what the difference between gestures and a sing language is, as obviously they are not the same thing, although both involve the use of hands and occasionally other parts of the body. Gestures are the hand movements which accompany speech, so they are just a supplement of speech, while a sing language is a substitute of speech used by people incapable of speaking in any other way. Apart from that, there are additional signs which are neither gestures, nor any parts of sign languages. Emblems are highly culturally dependable, they function as fixed phrases and are speech-independent. Signals like ‘thumbs up’ for example are emblems.

Gestures are very popular in everyday conversations and they can refer to different things, that is why linguists distinguish three types of gestures. Iconics serve the purpose of showing what is being talked about, deictics are the gestures which point at the discussed items, and beats are brief and quick movements of hands to accompany the rhythm of the speech. As the above descriptions show gestures only add to the meaning conveyed by speech. When hands are used to ‘speak’ linguists describe it as a sign language.

Sign languages are also subdivided depending on their complexity and the context of use. Thus, alternative sing language is a system of communication used among speakers who, due to their profession or other circumstances, need to communicate some ideas using hands. For instance stockbrokers are a group of people who share and use an alternative sign language. On the other hand, primary sign language is used by people who do not use any spoken language with one another.

Languages such as English or French make use of the sound to convey meaning, while sign languages function in the visual mode. Therefore, the signs of language have different properties, otherwise known as articulatory parameters are described in terms of shape, location, orientation and movement. Shape is the configuration of hands used in producing signs, which includes also the fingers used and their positions. The orientation is connected with the palm and whether it is facing the signer or the interlocutor. Location is where the hand is in relation to the head and upper body of the signer, which is extremely important as slight change of the position of hands might have influence on the meaning. Movement is where and how the hands move during conversations. It is vital to point out that the speed of making symbols plays an important role in sign languages.

The most recent tendencies in describing sign languages focus of the issues connected with the ways of representing it on paper what still causes some difficulties. Moreover, the acquisition of sign languages as the first language of children of deaf parents is examined. It appears that sign language acquisition follows similar patterns to the acquisition of other languages, however, since it does not make use of the vocal tract it occurs faster.

Yule G. 1996. The study of language. Cambridge: CUP.

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