LINGUIST List 13.258

Wed Jan 30 2002

Sum: Lingua Franca in Sign Languages

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Steven Schaufele, Sign lingua franca

Message 1: Sign lingua franca

Date: Wed, 30 Jan 2002 18:03:51 +0800
From: Steven Schaufele <>
Subject: Sign lingua franca

Almost two months ago, in response to a question from one of my students i
posted a query about cross-linguistic sign-language communication: Is there
some lingua franca commonly used by signers who have no native language in
common? Several people asked me to post a summary of the responses i got.

First of all, i would like to thank the following for the information they
Dorothea Cogill-Koez <>
Susan Fischer <>
Nancy Frishberg <>
Jennifer Herbold <>
Randall Hogue <>
Leland McCleary <>
Ken Shan <>
Davide Turcato <>
Remy Viredaz <>
Philippe Xu <>

And now, the summary:

At one level, ASL was frequently mentioned as sharing within the
Deaf/Signing community the same lingua-franca status that English currently
enjoys within the more general international community, including the same
`fashionable cachet' as English enjoys in many non-English-speaking
countries. One respondent noted that part of what this means is that ASL
has become an important source of loans into other gestural languages.
Another noted that, at a recent conference at which there was much
discussion about what language to use for the sake of international
participants, spoken English and ASL `were strong candidates'. A third
pointed out that one factor contributing to ASL's ascendancy is the
existence of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. (at which ASL is
presumably the primary medium of instruction?), a university dedicated
specifically to the education of the deaf, which draws a sizable number of
international students. (One respondent speculated that, with the gradual
weakening of international boundaries in Europe, a new generation of young
deaf Europeans may eventually succeed in developing a decent pan-European
sign lingua franca to contest ASL's hegemony.)

At another level, several respondents told me about an `artificial' sign
language, formerly known as `Gestuno' (a name i was already familiar with
and mention in my lectures), now increasingly referred to as International
Sign Language or ISL. Several people compared ISL to Esperanto as a
deliberately-engineered, artificial language (responsibility for this was
referred to `a committee of the World Federation of the Deaf') that can be
used for communication across language barriers but which has no native
speakers. One difference between ISL and Esperanto, apparently, is that ISL
lacks what one respondent referred to as a `formal grammar' (another
descriptive phrase used was `moderately codified'); another, perhaps
clarifying this statement, described ISL as `more a vocabulary of signs that
all agree to use at international meetings'. A third described the rules as
`very flexible'. Many of the statements i got wrt ISL made it sound to a
comparative linguist like myself like a pidgin, koine, or trade jargon --
indeed, one respondent used the word `pidgin' in describing it -- that
different people adapt for use according to their own notions of
`reasonable' grammatical structure. It was noted that it is used primarily
by Europeans, Australians, and North and South Americans -- basically,
First-Worlders. Asians and Africans from various countries presumably use
differing versions, and thus there is some difficulty with communication in
ISL between individuals from different countries. Another respondent
mentioned that ISL is used in international athletic competitions, etc.
involving the Deaf, and that interpreters for such events often have to take
short courses.

Turcato provided the following list of references on Gestuno/ISL:

British Deaf Association, 1975. `Gestuno: International Sign Language of
the Deaf'.

Magarotto, Cesare, 1974. `Towards an International Language of Gestures'.
(Unesco Courier)

Moody, Bill, 1987. `International Gestures' in John V. Van Cleve (ed.),
_Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness_ (McGraw Hill).


While on the subject of references, Frishberg mentioned a couple of papers
by Battison and Jordan (both papers by both people), published in 1976 in
_Sign Language Studies_, vol. 10, on the subject of mutual intelligibility
of sign languages.

At a third level, it was noted that signers are generally better at
interlingual communication than non-signers even without a lingua franca;
thus, there is less pressure on Deaf/Signers to develop or recognize a
lingua franca than is typically the case for users of oral/aural language.
Hypothetical reasons offered for this include:
More practice at interlingual/intermodal communication
Greater similarities between different gestural languages
Greater role of general `body-language' communication in connection with
sign language.

Under the heading of `similarities between different gestural languages',
one respondent mentioned the importance of classifiers, which supposedly
carry a greater semantic and functional load than classifiers in typical
spoken languages that make use of them. Another alluded to common notions
wrt the grammatical use of physical signing space that `goes a long way to
help create impromptu and effective pidgins'. This same respondent spoke of
deaf people from different national/linguistic backgounds `negotiat[ing]
their communications' for those occasions when they get together, which
seemed to imply that each such occasion tends to produce its own, ad hoc
pidgin or lingua franca -- based heavily on these general similarities; the
respondent further remarked, `The successful negotiations are a wonder to
behold; the extremely unsuccessful are the stuff of lawsuits'.


Steven Schaufele, Ph.D.
Asst. Prof. Linguistics, English Dept.
Soochow Univeristy, Taipei, Taiwan
(886)(02)2881-9471 ext. 6504 (O)
(886)(02)2835-6966 (H)
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