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.

Mignon Fogarty
17-minute read
Episode #450
Is Sign Language Universal?


Mignon: It strikes me that sign language is much more in physical space than spoken language. So I was wondering, are there issues with privacy and eavesdropping when you have a lot of deaf people together having conversations? Is there an etiquette where you kind of look away or something like that?

David: That’s a good word, “etiquette.” Yes, you don’t just stand there and eavesdrop on somebody’s conversation. You can tell if a conversation is heated or romantic.

When you have a big group of people you have that. When it’s really a private conversations, there’s are ways to go stand over in a corner and block what people can see.

But it is more of an etiquette than anything. It’s just deaf people when they’re in a crowd with other folks, they’re talking, I’m going to be kind to my friends and not look in on every bit of their conversation. It’s more just etiquette thing than it is necessarily how we deal with this. You deal with it on a natural level. And then of course, if it really is a private conversation you can go into another room and take care of it.

Sign Language Poetry

Mignon: I guess it’s the same issue as being overheard at a party while you’re talking. The last question I have is from @pinkyandrexa, and she asks whether you know of any poets who do poetry videos in sign language. And you had mentioned earlier about people doing videos, so I was wondering generally if there is a big community of deaf people who make YouTube videos.

David: There are lots of videos there. Maybe you’re wanting to know about a certain issue. You can do a search there, put in ASL (that’s we call American Sign Language) and you can find that. 

As far as poets, I saw some folks way back 20 years ago when I was learning sign language, I saw some videos that would be visual poetry, that would be what we would consider sign language poetry but I don’t remember who that was or where you might be able to get your hands on it today, but I would imagine that you could find that type of storytelling. It is a really more of a storytelling done in a certain way. For example, there’s one that’s just humorous. You take the hand shapes of the alphabet and you tell a story going A to Z using signs or gestures that use the alphabet in order. One of the stories I remember seeing was a cowboy walks into a saloon and he goes through this whole routine of walking into the saloon and using these certain handshapes so you could see the story unfold A through Z,  so it’s more of a visual type of poetry, if you want to call it poetry. I guess that would be the best way to term it. 

Sign Language Jokes and Puns

Mignon: I just got one more question. @kaserpents wants to know if there are puns that only make sense in sign language.

David: Yes, there are.The opposite of that is where we often get in trouble as hearing people is trying to interpret our jokes into sign language. What is funny to us because of the pun doesn’t make any sense to the deaf because their sign isn’t tied to the English word necessarily. They may not know that these two words sound alike. So the other way is true. There are puns where the signs are similar but not exactly the same, so you can do a visual pun that way. 

Mignon: David, thank you so much for talking with me today. I just found this whole thing fascinating. 

You can find David online at missionarytalk.com, dpeach.com, and learnsigns.com.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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