Sign languages and deafness

Examples, history, food for thought.

Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language

Bedouin Sign

The Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) is a sign language used by about 150 Deaf and many hearing members of the al-Sayyid Bedouin tribe in the Negev desert of southern Israel. As both Deaf and hearing people share a language, Deaf people are not stigmatised in this community, and marriage between Deaf and hearing people is common.

Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language

It is quite unremarkable to be deaf here,” Fox writes. “In Al-Sayyid there is neither deaf culture nor deaf identity politics, because there is little hegemony of the hearing.

It takes a Beduin village – Jerusalem Post

Nicaraguan Sign Language

Nicaraguan Sign Language

Nicaraguan Sign Language is a signed language spontaneously developed by deaf children in a number of schools in western Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s. It is of particular interest to the linguists who study it, because it offers a unique opportunity to study what they believe to be the birth of a new language.

In 1980, a vocational school for adolescent deaf children was opened in the area of Managua called Villa Libertad. By 1983 there were over 400 deaf students enrolled in the two schools. Initially, the language program emphasized spoken Spanish and lipreading, and the use of signs by teachers was limited to fingerspelling (using simple signs to sign the alphabet). The program achieved little success, with most students failing to grasp the concept of Spanish words. However, while the children remained linguistically disconnected from their teachers, the schoolyard, the street, and the bus to and from school provided fertile ground for them to communicate with each other, and by combining gestures and elements of their home-sign systems, a pidgin-like form, and then a creole-like language rapidly emerged. They were creating their own language.

Staff at the school, unaware of the development of this new language, saw the children’s gesturing as mime, and as a failure to acquire Spanish. Unable to understand what the children were saying to each other, they asked for outside help, and in June 1986, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education contacted Judy Kegl, an American Sign Language linguist from MIT. As Kegl and other researchers began to analyze the language, they noticed that the young children had taken the pidgin-like form of the older children to a higher level of complexity, with verb agreement and other conventions of grammar.

Nicaraguan Sign Language

Plains Indian Sign Language

Plains Indian Sign Language

The Plains Indian sign languages (PISL) are various manually coded languages used, or formerly used, by various Native Americans of the Great Plains of the United States of America and Canada.

Plains Indian Sign Language

[Prior] to the cultural disruption caused by European colonization, it was commonly used across a large swath of North America from the Gulf of Mexico to Calgary, Canada, an area of over 1 million square miles. It spread so far because it was used as a lingua franca between Native American nations speaking at least 40 different languages, but it was also used within native communities as an alternative to their spoken languages and as a primary language for deaf people.

Hand Talk

Poetry by deaf people

The deaf poet is no oxymoron. But one would think so, given the popular understanding that poetry has sound and voice at its heart.

Melodies Unheard – Poetry Magazine

Suppression of sign languages

Forbidden Signs explores American culture from the mid-nineteenth century to 1920 through the lens of one striking episode: the campaign led by Alexander Graham Bell and other prominent Americans to suppress the use of sign language among deaf people.


Sign language and thought

The relationship of language to cognition, especially in development, is an issue that has occupied philosophers, psychologists, and linguists for centuries. In recent years, the scientific study of sign languages and deaf individuals has greatly enhanced our understanding of deafness, language, and cognition. This Counterpoints volume considers the extent to which the use of sign language might affect the course and character of cognitive development, and presents a variety of viewpoints in this debate. This volume brings the language-thought discussion into a clearer focus, both theoretically and practically, by placing it in the context of children growing up deaf and the influences of having sign language as their primary form of communication

Relations of Language and Thought: The View from Sign Language and Deaf Children

Two videos