text-only page produced automatically by LIFT Text Transcoder Skip all navigation and go to page contentSkip top navigation and go to directorate navigationSkip top navigation and go to page navigation
National Science Foundation
Speech Is Physical
Exploring The Interface
Language Learning
Language Change
Paths of Change
Endangered Language
Sign Language
Classroom Resources

Sign Language
Spelling NSF in sign language. Click for larger image.
Spelling NSF in sign language.

Credit: Photodisc

What They Are

Sign (or signed) languages are principally used among members of what linguists call the “culturally deaf” communities. They rely on hand signs, facial expressions, body positions, motions and other physical signs (perhaps including mouthing the words) in order to communicate. By comparison, spoken language relies mostly on sounds on words.

Why They Matter

Why is the study of sign language important to linguistics? In general, it helps us understand the very nature of human language. Because they are so different from spoken languages, sign languages demonstrate at least two important properties of language.

  • All languages share certain characteristics; for example, a hierarchy of morphemes (meaningful units of language, such as the final “s” that identifies plural words in in English), words, phrases, sentences and so on.
  • All humans have the capacity to communicate via language.

Comparing signed to spoken languages is also instructive. In general, the grammar of sign languages—for example their allowable word orders—do not match those of neighboring spoken languages because of their independent development. However, contrary to what was (and is still sometimes) believed, sign languages share the richess and capacity of spoken languages. The late William Stokoe of Gallaudet College (later Gallaudet University) showed that American Sign Language meets the criteria to be classified a fully developed language, and changed conventional theory.

Because of the differences (as well as similarities), the study of sign languages is essential to understanding both the shared and the varied aspects of human language. It is also significant for developing second language programs that train sign language interpreters, and for instructors in deaf education programs.

Related Links:

Commentary on Stokoe

ASL Browser

By Elizabeth Malone

Language and Linguistics A Special Report