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What Is Language? Sign Language: Unuttered and Unwritten

Rodric has a Master in adult education. He has over ten years of facilitation and teaching experience.


The article, The Five Basic Elements of Language, explains that a language is a form of communication that allows intercourse between multiple people, that language is arbitrary (in words individually), generative (in word placement), and constantly evolving. So, what makes language understandable when it is not spoken? This article discusses the controversial topic of whether signing is a language itself or another means to communicate existing language.

For treatment on the definition of languages, see the link above and What Is Language? The Levels of Language Defined.

The Definition of Signing

The definition of signing or sign language receives a concise attempt from Wikipedia:

...language which, instead of acoustically conveyed sound patterns, uses visually transmitted sign patterns (manual communication, body language and lip patterns) to convey meaning—simultaneously combining hand shapes, orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to express fluidly a speaker's thoughts. 1

Of course, signing describes how people communicate using a number of sign languages! Signing equivocates to speaking, so the act of signing itself does describe how signers communicate a language, but the language spoken while signing is a language. It is not a spoken language any more than English or French are signed languages.

If the last paragraph were to use only the words "speak" and "spoke" instead of "signing" and "signed," there would exist little confusion.

Speaking Is Signing, and Signing Is Speaking

  • What language do you sign? American Sign Language.
  • What language do you speak? English.

The debate is common sense when taking it away from a technical application of language equivocation and applying it to plain language communication. When asking someone how he or she communicates with others, the thoughtful person might say "By speaking" or "With my mouth."

No, signed languages are not spoken languages. They have the same purpose, however. The better question is, why are people who sign not considered by some the same as those who speak? Because that question has many applicable answers, here, one will receive attention: hearing impairment.


Signing: The Unspoken Languages

Results from studies of early language acquisition provide robust evidence relevant to assessing whether signed languages are "real" languages. Here we see, clearly, that the prevailing assumption about the biological foundations of human language—indeed, the very assumption upon which notions of the alleged biological superiority of speech over signing rests—is not supported when the relevant studies are conducted.

Specifically, no evidence was found that the newborn brain is neurologically set exclusively for speech in early language ontogeny.

Specifically, researchers found no evidence that the newborn brain is neurologically set exclusively for speech in early language ontogeny. No evidence was found that speech is biologically more "special," more "privileged," or "higher" in status than signing in early language ontogeny. Instead, the key, persistent research finding to emerge is this: The biological mechanisms in the brain that underlie early human language acquisition do not appear to differentiate between spoken versus signed language input. Both types of input appear to be processed equally in the brain. This provides powerful evidence that signed and spoken languages occupy identical and, crucially, equal biological status in the human brain. 2

Another difference is that while writing systems have been developed for writing sign languages, usually people who are deaf communicate face to face. Rather than writing, they record stories, instruction and so forth on a video medium. For everyday communication, a webcam and access to the internet is the preferred way to dialogue. 2

Hearing impairment does not have to be crippling to those who suffer from the ailment since society in most developed nations caters to people with limitations.

This Is Me: ASL Version

Hearing-Impaired: Disability or Not?

Hearing-impaired individuals lack the normal and natural ability to use one of the five senses gifted to the human family. Whether by evolution or divine design, most of humanity is endowed with the ability to hear, taste, feel, see, and smell. The lack of one of the senses is a handicap.

Yes, not hearing is a disability. It is not a blessing or a curse, but it is the body not being able to do something that it was designed to do. Hearing impairment does not have to be disabling, however. It does not have to be crippling to those who suffer from the ailment since society in most developed nations has built-in accommodations for people with limitations. Because of this development in society, signing is another mode of communication equivalent to language and not solely a tool to help those with impairments to function independently in society.

In the United States, a hearing loss of 60% or more qualifies a person as disabled and eligible for governmental assistance through Social Security. Since sign language is used by other than the hearing impaired, it is not a language for the nonhearing alone.

Because sign language is developed for those who have difficulty speaking or hearing, many do not consider it another language. Signing can be considered on the same level as braille for the blind—tools to help those disadvantaged with a lack of the senses hearing, or seeing.


So, what makes language understandable when it is not spoken? The answer is sign language—at least in the case of this article. Signing is a language. It is not based on another language but has its own method, grammar, and symbols like other languages, save those symbols that are not written. Signing is not another means to communicate an existing language. Signing is its own language.

References Sourced

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rodric Anthony


Rodric Anthony (author) from Surprise, Arizona on April 02, 2020:

Marlene, sign language, if based off American Sign Language, can be similar. ASL was based on French Signing if I remember correctly and each country and region of a country can have strikingly different signing techniques like spoken languages.

I know that I can pick up on Portuguese and Italian some because of my French training. Those languages seem to come from the same places. I was able to learn to speak Xhosa, (the language used in Black Panther movie) which is spoken by millions of South Africans because of its Latin similarities in sentence structure.

I see your point though. Singing is based on similar movements such as the popular and extent ASL makes it seem universal.

Oh, I must admit that I am no linguistic prodigy. I no longer can speak any of the languages other than English now. I am out of practice and lost my gift of tongues due to non-practice.

Rodric Anthony (author) from Surprise, Arizona on April 02, 2020:

Ruby, I am glad you found a connection with this article and your family member Terry. I mentioned my cousin Rykeen to Pamela. He went to deaf school and is deep in the deaf culture. It is interesting because he and his wife are deaf and his two kids are hearing. It is so amazing to me that they could manage their lives and family. I love him for that. He is a good husband and father. I don't think it is because he is deaf, of course. He has a good soul and taught me that I can overcome limitations and do things that I want to do.

Rodric Anthony (author) from Surprise, Arizona on April 02, 2020:

Pamela, I agree. I think the gift, too, is being able to learn how to sign and communicate with the hearing impaired. I have a cousin who has learned how to read lips, but no one has learned how to sign for him.He did not need our pity, he dealt with his limitations. He is an adult now, married with two kids. I feel guilty that we never tried to invest in signing for him.

Rodric Anthony (author) from Surprise, Arizona on April 02, 2020:

Bill, thank you for reading. I wondered if it was interesting enough for people to read. I guess I received my answer when it went to Owlification. You were right as always.

My family has been social distancing since my sister's birthday on March 12th. We are okay. I think the quarantine is bringing us closer together.

Marlene Bertrand from USA on March 28, 2020:

The thing about sign language is that it is fairly universal. My daughter had roommates who were deaf and used sign language. So she learned it very well. She taught it to her children and they were able to communicate in sign language very well at a very early age. Needless to say, Grandma (me) had to learn sign language too. It was fun.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on March 26, 2020:

This was esp. interesting to me since I have a deaf person in my family. His name is Terry and he was born deaf. He signs and reads lips. He can speak but not well. He grew up in a deaf school. He was there Monday threw Friday, home on weekends. I know a few signs. Thanks for writing this important article.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 26, 2020:

This is a very interesting article. Being able to communicate with actually speaking is a gift. Rodric, stay healthy in these times of the virus.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 26, 2020:

Very interesting! We see signers now when politicians give speeches. It's cool to watch them sign because you can "read" their emotions through their body actions.

I hope you and your family are well. Blessings to you all!