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Sign Language Diversity:

Franklin Muniz


Just as there are many separate cultures throughout the world, there are also a great number of different sign languages.  Mainly they are all different because of their differing origins. The different spoken languages that are around them also affect the signed language and how it was developed. And the origins of the spoken language also affects how new signed languages are developed. Often signed languages differ in the fingerspelling of their alphabets.

Fingerspelling is when signers execute rapid handshapes to correspond to each letter in the English alphabet, and even some other, but similar to English, alphabets. Even some words are fingerspelled to communicate their signs because there is no lexicographic sign for them (Chamberlain, Mayberry, and Morford 2000). Take ASL, for example, when signing refrigerator, you just sign R-E-F.

Alphabets of signed languages are dependent on the language of the region of origin. ASL, a one-handed fingerspelling language (like most European sign languages), is based on the English alphabet (Brentari 2001). Lexical units of ASL are like spoken words of English, like fingerspelling is to spelling respectively. ASL lexical signing is a two-handed signing for English words, while fingerspelling is a one-handed signing for the English alphabet. Also, ASL has multiple lexicographic forms for the same English word, to show different applications (Bellugi and Klima 1979).

Yet BSL, a two-handed fingerspelling language (like Australian and New Zealand sign languages), is based on the British alphabet. BSL typology, or fingerspelling, allows the incorporation of English into BSL through visual representation of the written form. Since the two languages, English and British, are languages that borrow from each other, then the fingerspellings would also do much of the same. This brings up the process of breaking down the typology of the two signed languages. BSL has a primary, two-handed system as well as a secondary, one-handed system of fingerspelling. There is also multiple orientations and configurations to each word in the alphabet. The one-handed fingerspelling originated in Ireland. Its similar to ASL, but a few of the word forms are signed differently (Brentari 2001).

JSL uses a manual representation of both a syllabic hiragana system(Basic Japanese vocabulary. Hiragana is used for describing and understanding non-asian originated objects and topics) and a manual character signs. The same is used for other Asian sign languages (Brentari 2001).
DSL is a “mouth-hand system” (Brentari 2001). DSL is a more iconic signing language than some others. Much like ASL or CSL, the lexicographic signs used in DSL much resemble the object being signed, like a descriptor (Bellugi and Klima 1979).

Mouthing in DGS considered to be at first separate from the signed language. They also thought that it may be redundant to be used so frequently in signing. That idea was rejected. Then later it was proven how both signing and mouthing are both essential components to communication of the language. Mouthing alone is not treated like a single way of communication. There are multiple meanings for the same sign with or without mouthing. It is a component that differentiates multiple different signs and their meanings. Mouthing and manual signing are two different elements, which combines can create multiple definitions to be interpreted and understood (Brentari 2001).

DSGS has five related dialects, no standard version. Mouthing is quite significant to DSGS, mainly because Swiss German deaf people don’t normally fingerspell. Multiple dialects also contribute to the lack of fingerspelling. Mouthing is much easier to translate and communicate between the different versions of DSGS. Plus, the bilingual living situations of the Swiss German deaf people also contributes to the use of mouthing over fingerspelling, consequence of the German vocabulary. German is the base language of DSGS (Brentari 2001).

SLN is the borrowing language of Dutch, the source language. SLN has a verb framed typology. As an example, its motion verbs can be implemented in many ways to symbolize similar motion of different objects (Brentari 2001). SLN is a very lexicographic language. It also has a lot of grammatic structure to their sentences (Chamberlain, Mayberry, and Morford 2000).

SD is seen as an artificial language, a hybrid of Dutch and SLN. It is considered easy for Dutch speakers, but SLN users don’t consider it a language. It doesn’t following basic typology or modality constraints of signed languages, even when shown on the hands. Elements of SD are assimilated in SLN structure, which shows that SD cant be kept for natural communication (Brentari 2001).


Brentari, Diane. 2001. Foreign Vocabulary in Sign Languages: A cross-Linguistic Investigation of Word Formation. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Chamberlain, C., Mayberry, R., and Morford, J. 2000. Language Acquisition by Eye. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Bellugi, U., and Klima, E. 1979. The Signs of Language. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.