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Linguistics and Sign Language

People of communities known as the “culturally deaf,” by linguists, primarily use Sign (or signed) languages. Hand signals, facial expressions;   the positions of the body, head nods and other physical indications—even the silent mouthing the words— are implemented as a means of communication.

What is the Significance?

  The study of sign language is essential to linguists as it assists in the understanding of the nature of all language. Obviously, sign language varies greatly from spoken language yet illustrates two key attributes of communication. 1) All languages share specific features; such as  an order of morphemes, which are meaningful utterances of language, such as the final “s” that identifies plural words in English in phrases and sentences. 2) All human beings possess the ability to communicate through language. It is an enlightening experience to compare signed and spoken languages. Overall, sign language employs a type of grammar which is quite dissimilar from spoken languages. For instance, the acceptable order of the lexes in sign languages differs greatly due to its autonomous development. Nevertheless, contrary to popular belief, sign languages share every bit of the depth, richness and capability of vocalized languages. Research performed by Gallaudet University proves that American Sign Language fits the paradigm of a developed language, thus altering an established theory. What American Sign Language (ASL), lacks in grammatical tense, it makes up for in its verbal abundance. These are generated by verb modulation: Through repetition, by placing the verb in a frame of aspect or by combining each of these methods. Unique to sign languages, frames are a morphological or inflection, stratagem. These are partial sets of the ‘characters’ of which signs are comprised; when combined with existing signs, the features of each are fused and form a new sign. The frame stipulates the numerical value and behavior of segments in the subsequent sign, while the basic signs with which it fuses ultimately forgo all but a couple of their initial features.

Modifying Verbs and Adverbs

Mouthing is essential for fluency in sign languages—it also serves a morphological function. For instance, a person might sign ‘man tall’ to indicate such, but with the simultaneous mouthing of the syllable “cha” and signing ‘tall’, the phrase is transformed into, “That man is gigantic!” Sign language offers a number of ways to modify an adjective or verb’s intensity. These ways are the basic equivalent to including the spoken word, “very” in English. Certain short words in English, such as ‘bad’ and ‘glad’, are “finger-spelled” instead of signed to indicate ‘very bad’ and ‘very glad’. Others ways include reduplication, producing signs with exaggerated motions; a back and forth scissor motion using the arms will indicate that the sign is conveying excessive size—so large that the body is unable to accommodate the sign. In contrast, other signs are presented in a slow, edgy manner.  The signs for ‘very fast’ and ‘very slow’ are indicated by a measured and more purposeful motion than in the citation forms of ‘fast’ and ‘slow’, rather than “faster” for very fast and “slower” to mean very slow. Its differences as well as similarities deem the study of sign language as vital in order to understand the diverse characteristics of human communication. It is also important for the development of second language programs that instruct ASL interpreters, and for educators in deaf learning programs.


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