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Sign language

American Indians were known to use a signed pidgin to facilitate communication among tribes who used different spoken languages, and people in situations where silence is desirable (such as military operations) or where speech is impossible (for example when scuba diving) often employ some form of sign to communicate. In addition to describing these artificial or invented methods of silent communication, sign language is also used to refer to the natural languages used by the deaf, and those who wish to communicate easily with them.

The Natural Sign Languages

A sign language is one that uses combinations of handshapes, movements of the hands, arms and/or body, and facial expressions to convey information, instead of using sounds. A common misconception about signed languages is that they are not real languages. Professional linguists have studied many sign languages and found them to have every linguistic component required to be classed as a true language. Sign languages are not simple pantomime, and they are not a visual rendition of a simplified version of any spoken language. They have rich, complex grammars and, like every other language used by people, they can be used to discuss any topic, from the simple and concrete to the lofty and abstract. They are the linguistic equal to Chinese, English, French, or any other natural language.

Another misconception commonly held is that sign languages are dependent in some way on spoken languages, e.g. they are merely the spelling out of the words of a spoken language using gestural symbols. Although fingerspelling is used in sign languages, mostly for proper names, it is merely one tool among many. To say that sign language is not a true language because it uses fingerspelling for some things is akin to saying that English is not a true language because it contains onomatopoeic words. On the whole, sign languages are independent of spoken languages and they follow their own developmental paths. For example, British Sign Language and American Sign Language are different and mutually unintelligible, even though the hearing people of British and America share the same spoken language. In addition, countries which have a single spoken language used throughout may have two or more signed languages being used within. Conversely, an area that contains more than one native spoken language might use the same signed language, such as the case in Canada, the United States, and Mexico; all three use American Sign Language while there are native speakers of English, French and Spanish within their borders.

Further proof of the separation of sign languages from spoken ones is the fact that sign languages exploit the unique features of the visual medium. Spoken language is aural and therefore linear, as only one sound can be made or received at a time whereas sign language is visual, hence, a whole scene can be taken in at once. Therefore, information can be loaded into many 'channels' and expressed simultaneously. As an illustration, one could sign a sentence in American Sign Language that most literally translated would mean, "I drove here" but, by taking advantage of the visual mode of communication, information about the subject, object, verb and countless ancillary and descriptive details can be packed in by altering the movement, location, speed of execution, and handshapes used in the signs and classifiers of the sentence. All this is in addition to the grammatical, contextual and substantive information that is carried on the facial expressions incorporated, thus producing what could be honestly and accurately translated as: "As I drove here, the ride was pleasant at first, but soon, it became treacherous, for the road up the mountain was inordinately steep and circuitous with many holes and so I am mightily relieved to have finally made it."

One other way sign language differs from spoken is its ability to be written. It would be a mistake however, to assume that Sign Languages are the only languages that have no written version. Sign languages are not often written; most deaf people who use sign language read and write the spoken language of their country. However, there have been attempts at developing systems for recording sign language. Most of these have been academic attempts at transcription, which often suffer from being unable to capture all the physical features (especially the non-manual and positional ones) used by sign language. As a result they have not been used outside research. The only sign language writing system which has been actually used by deaf people to write, is Sign Writing, which rather than being developed by a linguist was devised by a dancer.

In principle, one could state that each spoken language has a sign language counterpart inasmuch as each linguistic population will contain Deaf members who will generate a sign language. Variations within a 'national' Sign Language can usually be correlated to the geographic location of (residential) schools for the Deaf.

Sign languages in use around the world today include:

Sign languages for specific purposes:

There are also a large number of less formally organised but still widely understood gesticulations and mimes. These range from expressing universal needs such as pointing to the mouth or rubbing the stomach to indicate a desire for food, to more insulting gestures such as the one-finger salute. It should be noted that not only do these not form a coherent language but their meaning may vary from culture to culture.

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