Sign languages are all similar in certain ways. For example, they use 3-D space to express relationships like “on,” “in,” and “under.” They also use more iconicity than spoken languages (which means that words actually resemble the thing they represent). We explore many other similarities between sign languages in our Certificate in Sign Language Linguistics.
But even though sign languages have many common features, they can be strikingly, beautifully different from one another. Such differences are one of the main topics studied by sign language linguists. Here are two examples of how delightfully unique sign languages can be!
Every sign language conveys meaning through the shape, location, and movement of the hands. But just like spoken languages use a stunning variety of vowels and consonants, each sign language has a unique repertoire of handshapes to draw from.
For example, Ethiopian Sign Language (EthSL) has several handshapes that American Sign Language (ASL) doesn’t use. ASL signers sometimes struggle to form the EthSL signs that use those handshapes. Their muscle memory can’t kick in.
Signers from other countries can have the same kinds of problems with ASL. In ASL, the letter “M” involves folding three fingers over the thumb. This handshape appears in various words in ASL, but never occurs in Mexican Sign Language (LSM). LSM instead represents “M” with three straight fingers pointing downward. Mexican signers will certainly be confused if someone spells “M” with the ASL shape—and they may not be able to imitate it, either!
Brothers, Sisters, and Siblings
Sign languages don’t only differ in handshape. They differ in grammar, too! Take how ASL and Salvadoran Sign Language (LESSA) each talk about siblings.
Both languages have a sign meaning ‘sibling,’ but they use it in different ways. In ASL, you can’t use the sign that means ‘sibling’ by itself. You have to use it with the signs meaning ‘male’ or ‘female,’ producing compound signs meaning ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’ If you want to express the concept of ‘sibling,’ you have to say BROTHER-SISTER.
In LESSA, on the other hand, the sign for ‘sibling’ gets used by itself all the time. That can leave people wondering, Are we talking about a brother or a sister? If you need to clarify, you can add the signs for MAN or WOMAN.
But the order of the two signs is different, too! In ASL, the sign indicating gender comes first: MALE-SIBLING or FEMALE-SIBLING. In LESSA, the sign indicating gender comes second: SIBLING-MAN or SIBLING-WOMAN. This pattern holds true for other male-female pairs of words: in ASL, gender comes first; in LESSA, it comes last.
Learn More about World Sign Languages
If you have a heart for serving Deaf communities in the US or abroad, Sign Language Linguistics is the place to start! With so many sign languages around the world, and each of them with unique features, DIU can give you the linguistic tools that you need to analyze these unique features and understand how they are used linguistically and socially. Our Certificate in Sign Language Linguistics will help you better understand the linguistic communities you want to serve so that your efforts are more effective and more helpful.