In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sign Language

  • Introduction
  • Deaf Studies
  • Journals

Anthropology Sign Language
Brenda Farnell, Laura Davies Brenier
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0285


A sign language is a language that uses movements of the hands, face, and body to convey meaning instead of the speech sounds produced by the vocal tract. Understood through vision rather than hearing, signers use these visible articulators in three-dimensional space in complex linguistic ways to create lexical forms and grammatical relationships. Although typically used among groups of Deaf people, it is incorrect to assume that sign languages only come into being when deafness prevents the normal acquisition of a spoken language. This is well illustrated by the sign languages used by the Warlpiri indigenous people of Australia, the sign language shared by indigenous peoples of the Plains region of North America, and those used by religious orders such as Cistercian monks in the United States and Trappist monks in Japan and China. These peoples and communities use sign languages in addition to conventional spoken languages, not instead of them. Importantly, sign languages are not simply a mapping of the spoken language of a region into a visual modality performed with the hands, face, and body. Sign languages have markedly different grammars from the spoken language(s) with which they are in contact. It is also the case that countries such as England, the United States, and the Republic of Ireland, which use variants of the same spoken language, have mutually unintelligible signed languages. The use of uppercase “Deaf” indicates cultural deafness as opposed to the strictly audiological condition indicated by lowercase “deaf.” These uses are conventional in the literature on deafness and signed languages.

Is Sign Language Universal?

Sign languages are not universal, and there is no sign language used by all deaf people. Numerous distinct sign languages exist around the world. There are as many sign languages as there are signing communities (deaf or hearing), separated by national, social, political, or geographic boundaries, just like spoken languages. However, there are two international sign systems, both of which were artificially created.

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