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Is Sign Language Universal?

Sign language is a visual language that uses hand gestures, facial expressions, and body movements to convey meaning.
It is a form of communication that is used primarily by people who are deaf or hard of hearing, but it is also used by some hearing people, such as those who have deaf family members, those who work with deaf people, or those who are interested in learning a new language.
Sign language is often considered to be a universal language of the deaf since it can overcome the barriers of spoken languages and allow deaf people to communicate with each other across different countries and cultures.
However, is sign language really universal? How many sign languages are there in the world? How do they differ from each other? And how do they reflect the diversity of human societies?
In this article, we will explore these questions and more, and learn about the fascinating world of sign languages.

The Universality of Sign Language

One of the common misconceptions about sign language is that it is universal, meaning that there is only one sign language that is used by all deaf people around the world, or that different sign languages are mutually intelligible, meaning that users of different sign languages can understand each other without difficulty.
This misconception may stem from the fact that sign language is a visual language that does not depend on spoken words, and that some sign language gestures may seem intuitive or natural to many people.
For example, pointing to oneself may mean “I” or “me”, nodding may mean “yes”, and shaking the head may mean “no”.
However, these gestures are not universal, and they may have different meanings or interpretations in different sign languages or cultures.
For instance, nodding may mean “no” in some parts of Bulgaria, and shaking the head may mean “yes” in some parts of India.

The truth is that sign language is not universal, and there are many distinct sign languages around the world, each with its own set of rules, grammar, and vocabulary, influenced by the respective cultures, histories, and societies.
Sign languages are natural languages, meaning that they are not artificially created or imposed, but rather they emerge and evolve naturally among deaf communities over time.
Sign languages are also full-fledged languages, meaning that they have the same linguistic features and functions as spoken languages, such as phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and discourse.
Sign languages are not simply gestures or mimics of spoken languages, rather they have their own unique and complex structures and expressions.

Number of Sign Languages

The exact number of sign languages in the world is not precisely known, as there is no definitive criterion or method to identify and classify them. 
However, according to the Ethnologue, a comprehensive reference of the world’s languages, there are currently 150 sign languages listed in its 2021 edition. 
However, this number may not reflect the actual diversity of sign languages, as there may be more sign languages that have not been documented or discovered yet, or that have been overlooked or misclassified as dialects or variants of other sign languages.
Moreover, some sign languages may have multiple names or labels, depending on the source or perspective, which may cause confusion or inconsistency. 
For example, the sign language used in the United States is commonly known as American Sign Language (ASL), but it is also sometimes called Ameslan, AmSL, or LSF (Langue des Signes Française).

The number of sign languages in the world is also dynamic and changing, as sign languages are not static or fixed, but rather they are constantly developing and adapting to the changing needs and situations of their users and environments.
Sign languages may emerge, evolve, merge, split, or disappear over time, due to various factors, such as social, political, economic, educational, or technological changes.
For example, new sign languages may emerge when deaf communities are isolated or segregated from other deaf or hearing communities, and develop their own means of communication. 
This is the case of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), which emerged in the 1980s, when deaf children who had no access to formal education or sign language were brought together in a special school, and spontaneously created their own sign language. 
On the other hand, some sign languages may disappear or decline when deaf communities are assimilated or integrated into other deaf or hearing communities, and adopt or adapt to their dominant languages. 
This is the case of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), which was used by deaf and hearing people on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, until the 1950s, when it was gradually replaced by ASL and English, due to increased migration and intermarriage.

Examples of Different Sign Languages

As we have seen, there are many different sign languages in the world, and they vary in their structures, expressions, and usage.
However, there are also some similarities and connections among different sign languages, as they may share some common origins, influences, or features.
In this section, we will look at some examples of the most widely used sign languages, and compare and contrast them in terms of their history, characteristics, and distribution.

American Sign Language (ASL)

ASL is the sign language used by deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States, Canada, and some parts of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
It is also used by some hearing people, such as those who have deaf family members, those who work with deaf people, or those who are interested in learning a new language. 
ASL is estimated to have about 500,000 to 2 million users in the United States, and about 5.2 million users worldwide.
ASL traces its origins to the early 19th century, when a French educator named Laurent Clerc came to the United States to help establish the first school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.
Clerc brought with him the French Sign Language (LSF), which he had learned at the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, the oldest school for the deaf in the world.
LSF was then mixed with the existing sign languages and gestures used by deaf people in the United States, such as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) and various home sign systems, to form a new sign language, which became known as ASL. 
ASL was further influenced by other sign languages, such as British Sign Language (BSL), Irish Sign Language (ISL), and Indigenous American Sign Language (IASL), as well as by spoken languages, such as English, Spanish, and French.
ASL has its own grammar and lexicon, which are different from those of spoken languages. ASL uses a combination of manual signs, which are made with the hands, and non-manual signs, which are made with the face, head, and body.
ASL has a complex phonology, which is based on the parameters of handshape, location, movement, palm orientation, and non-manual markers. ASL also has a rich morphology, which is based on the processes of compounding, derivation, inflection, and incorporation.
ASL has a flexible syntax, which is based on the principles of topic-comment, subject-verb-object, and time-topic-comment. ASL also has a nuanced semantics, which is based on the concepts of iconicity, metaphor, and classifier.
ASL also has a diverse pragmatics, which is based on the contexts of register, politeness, and discourse.
ASL is not a universal sign language, and it is not mutually intelligible with other sign languages, such as BSL or LSF.
However, ASL is related to some sign languages, such as French Sign Language (LSF), Quebec Sign Language (LSQ), and Francophone African Sign Language (LAFS), which share some common signs and grammar.
ASL is also similar to some sign languages, such as Australian Sign Language (Auslan), New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), and British Sign Language (BSL), which share some common origins and influences.
ASL is also different from some sign languages, such as Japanese Sign Language (JSL), Chinese Sign Language (CSL), and Korean Sign Language (KSL), which have different structures and expressions.

British Sign Language (BSL)

BSL is the sign language used by deaf and hard of hearing people in the United Kingdom, and some parts of Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.
It is also used by some hearing people, such as those who have deaf family members, those who work with deaf people, or those who are interested in learning a new language.
BSL is estimated to have about 125,000 to 250,000 users in the United Kingdom, and about 1.5 million users worldwide.
BSL traces its origins to the late 18th century, when a British educator named Thomas Braidwood opened the first school for the deaf in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Braidwood used a sign language that he had learned from a deaf pupil, which was based on the natural gestures and home signs used by deaf people in Britain.
Braidwood’s sign language was then spread and developed by his students and successors, who established other schools for the deaf in London, Manchester, Birmingham, and other cities.
BSL was further influenced by other sign languages, such as French Sign Language (LSF), Irish Sign Language (ISL), and Australian Sign Language (Auslan), as well as by spoken languages, such as English, Scots, and Welsh.
BSL has its own grammar and lexicon, which are different from those of spoken languages. BSL uses a combination of manual signs, which are made with the hands, and non-manual signs, which are made with the face, head, and body.
BSL has a complex phonology, which is based on the parameters of handshape, location, movement, palm orientation, and non-manual features. BSL also has a rich morphology, which is based on the processes of modification, inflection, and incorporation.
BSL has a flexible syntax, which is based on the principles of topic-comment, subject-verb-object, and time-manner-place.
BSL also has a nuanced semantics, which is based on the concepts of iconicity, metaphor, and classifier. BSL also has a diverse pragmatics, which is based on the contexts of register, politeness, and discourse.
BSL is not a universal sign language, and it is not mutually intelligible with other sign languages, such as ASL or LSF.
However, BSL is related to some sign languages, such as Australian Sign Language (Auslan), New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), and South African Sign Language (SASL), which share some common origins and influences.
BSL is also similar to some sign languages, such as Irish Sign Language (ISL), Scottish Sign Language (SSL), and Northern Ireland Sign Language (NISL), which share some common signs and grammar.
BSL is also different from some sign languages, such as Swedish Sign Language (SSL), Danish Sign Language (DSL), and Norwegian Sign Language (NSL), which have different structures and expressions.

Japanese Sign Language (JSL)

JSL is the sign language used by deaf and hard of hearing people in Japan, and some parts of Korea, Taiwan, and China.
It is also used by some hearing people, such as those who have deaf family members, those who work with deaf people, or those who are interested in learning a new language. 
JSL is estimated to have about 300,000 to 500,000 users in Japan, and about 1 million users worldwide.

JSL traces its origins to the early 19th century, when a Japanese Buddhist monk named Rennyo Shonin taught sign language to deaf people in Kyoto, Japan.
Rennyo’s sign language was based on the natural gestures and home signs used by deaf people in Japan, as well as on the Buddhist mudras, which are symbolic hand gestures used in meditation and rituals. Rennyo’s sign language was then spread and developed by his followers and successors, who established other schools and temples for the deaf in Japan. 
JSL was further influenced by other sign languages, such as Chinese Sign Language (CSL), Korean Sign Language (KSL), and American Sign Language (ASL), as well as by spoken languages, such as Japanese, Chinese, and English.
JSL has its own grammar and lexicon, which are different from those of spoken languages. JSL uses a combination of manual signs, which are made with the hands, and non-manual signs, which are made with the face, head, and body.
JSL has a complex phonology, which is based on the parameters of handshape, location, movement, palm orientation, and non-manual markers. JSL also has a rich morphology, which is based on the processes of modification, inflection, and incorporation.
JSL is not a universal sign language, and it is not mutually intelligible with other sign languages, such as ASL or BSL. However, JSL is related to some sign languages, such as Chinese Sign Language (CSL), Korean Sign Language (KSL), and Taiwanese Sign Language (TSL), which share some common signs and grammar.
JSL is also similar to some sign languages, such as Thai Sign Language (TSL), Vietnamese Sign Language (VSL), and Malaysian Sign Language (MSL), which share some common origins and influences.
JSL is also different from some sign languages, such as French Sign Language (LSF), German Sign Language (DGS), and Spanish Sign Language (LSE), which have different structures and expressions.

The Role of Culture and Geography

As we have seen, sign languages are not universal, and they vary in their structures, expressions, and usage.
However, what are the factors that contribute to the diversity of sign languages?
One of the main factors is culture, which is the set of beliefs, values, norms, and practices that shape the identity and behavior of a group of people.
Culture influences the development of sign languages, as it reflects the worldview, history, and traditions of the deaf communities that use them.
For example, some sign languages may have signs that are related to the religious, political, or artistic aspects of their cultures, such as the signs for Buddha, democracy, or origami.
Some sign languages may also have signs that are influenced by the spoken languages or writing systems of their cultures, such as the signs for alphabet, kanji, or arabic numerals. 
Some sign languages may also have signs that are unique to their cultures, such as the signs for sushi, kangaroo, or kilts.

Another factor that influences the diversity of sign languages is geography, which is the study of the physical features and human activities of the earth.
Geography influences the development of sign languages, as it affects the distribution, contact, and isolation of deaf communities that use them.
For example, some sign languages may be widespread and used in different countries or regions, due to historical, political, or economic reasons, such as colonization, migration, or trade.
This is the case of ASL, which is used in many parts of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, as well as in some parts of Africa and Asia. Some sign languages may also be in contact and exchange with other sign languages, due to geographical proximity or social interaction, such as travel, education, or media.
This may result in the borrowing, blending, or convergence of signs and grammar, creating similarities or variations among sign languages.
This is the case of BSL, which is in contact and exchange with ISL, Auslan, and NZSL, creating a family of sign languages known as the BANZSL family. Some sign languages may also be isolated and used in specific locations or communities, due to geographical barriers or social segregation, such as mountains, islands, or villages.
This may result in the emergence, evolution, or divergence of signs and grammar, creating differences or uniqueness among sign languages.
This is the case of NSL, which emerged and evolved in a specific school for the deaf in Nicaragua, creating a new sign language that is different from other sign languages.

Conclusion

Sign language is a visual language that uses hand gestures, facial expressions, and body movements to convey meaning.
It is a form of communication that is used primarily by deaf and hard of hearing people, but it is also used by some hearing people, who are interested in learning a new language.
Sign language is often considered to be a universal language of the deaf, since it can overcome the barriers of spoken languages and allow deaf people to communicate with each other across different countries and cultures.
However, sign language is not universal, and there are many distinct sign languages around the world, each with its own set of rules, grammar, and vocabulary, influenced by the respective cultures, histories, and societies.
Sign languages are natural languages, meaning that they are not artificially created or imposed, but rather they emerge and evolve naturally among deaf communities over time.
Sign languages are also full-fledged languages, meaning that they have the same linguistic features and functions as spoken languages, such as phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and discourse.
Sign languages are not simply gestures or mimics of spoken languages, but rather they have their own unique and complex structures and expressions.

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