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Is Sign Language Universal?

Sign language has its own grammar, and it's not one universal language. In this interview with interpreter David Peach, I learned all kinds of fascinating details about sign language around the world.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #450
Is Sign Language Universal?

Sign Language Usage Arguments

Mignon: Oh, so it’s a sentence marker; that’s efficient. Your comment about the two languages reminded me of another question I have. I was wondering if there are usage arguments in sign language. We argue about should you or should you not start a sentence with “hopefully,” are there those kinds of arguments in sign language too? 

David: [chuckles] Oh yes, those are very fun and many times those usage arguments are done by hearing people or it’s something we talk about in the classroom. If I put out a video and this is my video and I’m talking about this product that my company sells, nobody really talks about whether I used that sign properly here or not, if I’m a deaf person. But if I’m a hearing person that puts out that video then it gets critiqued by all other hearing interpreters and sometimes deaf people, so yes, there are usage arguments.

You asked me in an e-mail about manuals of style (such as the Chicago Manual of Style) and such, do we have that. We have many of those and just like in English the nice thing about standards is there are so many to choose from. You can choose which book you want to follow here or there. For day-to-day communications, of course, you would have your discussions and arguments, but really the matter is communication and many deaf people are just interested in communicating, whether it’s grammatically correct or not as far as what is a proper correct grammar, you know, the proper English grammar is what we have all agreed on and have decided this is right or not, there’s nothing, no laws in the universe that says it has to be done this way, it’s because we’ve agreed it has to be done this way. And that’s the same way in sign language grammar, it’s that you know if it’s accepted and everyone agrees to it then that’s our accepted grammar. 

Abbreviations in Sign Language

Mignon: It sounds very much like spoken English too. There’s a subset of people who care and will fight about the rules, but the much larger group of people just talk the way they’re going to talk and speak the way they’re going to speak and that’s the way it is.  

I had thrown out on Twitter to see if anyone had specific questions for you and @runnessierun had a couple of questions. One of them if there are signs for abbreviations, are there signs for slang or internet abbreviations or things like that that evolve over time? 

The sign for "train gone" means you're too late to join the conversation.

David: Sure. And really, those types of abbreviations may not be, like we abbreviate a certain thing in English and in sign language that may or may not be abbreviated. But they would have other things that they would say. For example, the deaf use this phrase “train gone,” and that is when somebody comes into a conversation and the conversation is ending and they say “Hey, what are you talking about?” The deaf people would just look at him and sign the words “train” and then “go,” meaning you’ve missed the boat, we’re done talking about that, we’re moving on, and so they have a lot of little abbreviations like that. 

The nature of sign language is in some ways abbreviated. Let me give you an example. It’s called a pro-drop language. If I know what I’m talking about, and you know what I’m talking about, then there's no reason to talk about it, the thing we’re talking about. For example, I say, “You give the book to her.” If I know I’m talking about the book, and you know I’m talking about the book, and she’s standing right there, I can just do the sign “give,” from you to her. I’m just doing one sign but grammatically it means “You give the book to her.” There are a lot of abbreviations and things like that. 

You would also show facially many abbreviations too. For example, “I don’t like this.” I don’t have to sign the words “I don’t like,” I can just sign the word “like” and give an ugly face with it and you’ll know that I don’t like this. As far as written communication, the deaf also have their own written shortcuts, like “by the way,” but as far as spoken or signed communication, it kind of already is a language of abbreviations.

Next: How People Get Their (Sometimes Insulting) Sign Names

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