What Is Language? Sign Language, the Unuttered and Unwritten
In the article The Five Basic Elements of Language, it's explained that language is defined as 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 a treatment on the definition of languages, see the link above and What Is Language? The Levels of Language Defined.
Signing = Speaking
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.
Specifically, no evidence was found that the newborn brain is neurologically set exclusively for speech in early language ontogeny.
Signing: The Unspoken Languages
Results from studies of early language acquisition provide especially strong 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 sign 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. 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.
Hearing-Impaired: Disability or Not?
Hearing-impaired individuals are lacking 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 caters to 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, 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 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.
- Wikipedia - Sign language 1
- Laura Ann Petitto - Are signed languages "real" languages? 2
- TED BERGMAN - Why are Sign Languages Included in the Ethnologue? 3
© 2020 Rodric Anthony