The fascinating development of sign language

Alexandra Hicks
As the name suggests, sign languages (also referred to as signed languages) are languages that employ complex signs and symbols made by moving the hands. And no, it’s not the same thing as body language—not even close.

Contrary to popular belief, sign languages are natural and original, and they utilise their own set of grammar, vocabulary, and lexicon based on where the specific sign language originates. Because of this, sign languages are not universal or mutually comprehensible by all nationalities. For example, American Sign Language (ASL) is completely different from British Sign Language (BSL), despite how closely related the spoken languages are.
Expert linguists agree that sign language is just as natural as a spoken language. What “natural” means in this sense is that, just like spoken words, sign language came to be completely on its own, without any scrupulous planning. Although sign languages are known for being dominant in deaf communities and cultures, they’re also used by people who are able to hear but may have some type of disability or condition that leaves them unable to speak.


There’s a common myth that sign languages are nothing more than spoken languages expressed via hand signs, or that they were all created by people who can hear—but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sign languages are developed by the people who use them. Aside from borrowing certain elements from spoken language (which is something all languages do anyway—think Latin influence on many of the world’s current languages), sign language is completely independent of spoken language and develops much differently:

Please turn on subtitles to view the video.
What’s interesting though is that the brain processes all languages very similarly, whether they are spoken, signed, or from different regions. Even sign languages have their own alphabet, referred to as fingerspelling, with a list of unique characters that are necessary for expressing things like pronouns or abstract concepts. This is a possible reason why many people think the two are interconnected somehow.
Overall, sign languages are more closely related to other sign languages than spoken languages are to one another. This is most likely because signs are very obviously connected to objects and locations in the real world, while spoken languages are more conceptual.


Iconicity in language means that the word itself conveys the meaning of said word or sign. Basically, it’s a literal analogy instead of an arbitrary word or sign. In the 1970s, languages that were highly iconic were not considered real languages; however, it’s now been determined that iconicity is a key characteristic of all languages, signed and spoken.
The first studies about iconicity were published in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, although they didn’t get much traction, and people generally rejected the theory. Even though linguists did recognise the connection between certain aspects of language, they viewed it more as a coincidence rather than a powerful aspect of language itself.
In English, an example of iconicity would be referring to something small as “itty, bitty, teeny, weenie”. In ASL, signs conveying emotions such as “happy”, “angry”, and “feel” are portrayed on the chest, close to the heart. Another ASL example would be cognitive signs like “think”, “know”, and “understand”, all of which occur near the temple.
The first studies about iconicity were published in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s


It’s unknown exactly how many sign languages exist in the world, but the Ethnologue—an annual text that offers facts and statistics about world languages—lists 137 official different sign languages. Sign languages are broken down into three main categories: deaf sign languages, which are used in areas where people form their own deaf communities; village sign languages, which are indigenous, local languages that were developed over generations and are used where there are a naturally large number of deaf residents; and auxiliary sign languages, which vary in complexity and are often used in cooperation with spoken languages.
Each continent (and country within the continent) has its own form of sign language as well. In Africa, there are a minimum of 25 different sign languages, with at least 13 having been introduced by foreigners from Europe and America. In the United States, ASL is dominant, and nearly 500,000 people claim it as their native language. ASL is influenced largely by a combination of French Sign Language (FSL) and Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), and it’s also used in Canada, West Africa, and Southeast Asia.
In the rest of the Americas, there are more than 30 recognised sign languages including native and small village varieties. In Asia and the Pacific Islands, every single country has a documented sign language except for the Solomon Islands. European sign languages are mostly influenced by FSL, but a number of countries including the UK, Germany, and Sweden have their own, unique signed dialects. Middle Eastern sign languages are unique because they all come from the same Arab origin.
Each continent (and country within the continent) has its own form of sign language.


Sign language is distinctive, and there are a few key things to remember when studying it. For instance, in just a few generations time, improvised gestures can turn into a full-fledged sign language. In 1980, the first local school for deaf children opened in Nicaragua. The students who attended had never been around other deaf people, so they communicated with gestures they used at home and created a unique language that the entire student body understood. Although it started with no rules or official structure, it eventually evolved into Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua (ISN).
Another interesting fact is that children learn and develop sign languages the same way that they learn spoken languages—in stages. First, babies will “babble” with their hands. Then, when they start formulating actual words, they substitute complex hand gestures for easier ones. Next, they’ll start stringing key words together to form sentences, minus fillers like “the” or “and”. Ultimately, they begin to form complete sentences following standard grammatical rules.
It’s important to note that brain damage affects sign language in the exact same way as spoken language. Just like people who use spoken words, if a fluent signer suffers from a stroke or traumatic head injury, it could negatively impact their ability to communicate. In the same way that “making sounds” is different than speaking, “making gestures” is not the same as signing.


To summarise, sign language is not at all like spoken language. It’s a unique and effective way to communicate, and in some ways, it’s actually much more practical. If you’re interested in learning sign language, keep in mind that it takes a lot of time, patience, determination, and often, a good sense of humour. There are a number of locations you could go for assistance. A few good places to consider would be local colleges and universities, community centres for the deaf, speech and hearing centres, state schools for the deaf, and various other deaf education programmes.