Today is International Day of Sign Languages. Every year it celebrates this 500 year old mode of communication that uses hand signals, gestures, facial expressions and body language instead of or in addition to spoken words. This week being International Week of Deaf People, we take the chance to learn more about the 72 million deaf people around the world who use hundreds of different Sign Languages to express themselves.
By True Colors Festival Team
How do you sign “cool”? In Singapore, you’d raise both hands to chest level and wiggle all ten fingers. Someone from Finland would point the index and middle fingers of their right hand towards the left. Someone from Japan would hold their right hand up as though there is a ball in palm and move the fist towards the left in a swift motion.
For IDSL, True Colors Festival interviews five deaf artists – Ameezy (Singapore, hip-hop dancer), Signmark (Finland, rapper), Mandy Harvey (US, singer/songwriter), Eri Nasu (Japan, Sign Language entertainer) and Karuna Sarkar (India, Indian classical dancer) who show us just how diverse Sign Language is in our IGTV series: True Colors Festival celebrates IDSL. The first episode is embedded below.
New episodes will be published on the True Colors Festival Instagram (@truecolorsfestival) through this week so stay tuned!
View this post on Instagram
There’s so much to learn about Sign Language — let’s find out more!
1. There are more than 300 different Sign Languages used around the world today. Even in countries where the same language is spoken, Sign Language can have many different regional accents that celebrate subtle variations to people’s use and understanding of signs.
2. Deaf communities have always been marginalized. Under Roman law people who were born deaf were denied the right to sign a will as they were “presumed to understand nothing; because it is not possible that they have been able to learn to read or write.” Pushback against this prejudice began in the Renaissance.
3. The person credited with the creation of a formal Sign Language was a Benedictine monk. His idea to use Sign Language was a synthesis of the hand gestures that Native Americans used to communicate with other tribes and to facilitate trade with Europeans, and the way Benedictine monks used hand gestures to communicate during their daily periods of silence.
4. Sign Languages have given people who are hard of hearing access to spoken language. Modern signing systems have different rules for pronunciation, word order, and grammar. Sign Languages can even reflect the complexity and richness of regional accents and speech.
5. The grammar of Sign Languages is not the same as that for spoken languages. Eyebrow position, eye position, hand gestures, and where they occur in relation to the body all factor into the language. Incorrect grammar in Sign Language results in confusion, just like in spoken language.
6. Each sign is made up of five components. They are: hand shape, location, movement, orientation and non-manual component such as facial expression, body movement, the position of the head and any oral and spoken elements. Changing any one of them changes the meaning of the sign.
7. Women near the jawline, men near the forehead. In American Sign Language (ASL), words pertaining to women such as wife or daughter are signed near to the jawline, while words relating to men are signed near the forehead.
8. Many deaf people have name signs. Instead of signing out the individual letters of their name, many Sign Language users adopt a single sign to represent it. Much like a nickname, this name sign is unique to the individual.
9. Small-d, big-D? Small-d deaf refers to hearing loss and deafness is seen as a disability requiring medical assistance and social welfare support to aid or rehabilitate the individual. Capital-D Deaf refers to a certain cultural belonging rather than hearing loss or absence. The term Deaf was created in defiance of the expression “deaf and dumb”, with the capital “D” serving to empower and emphasize the group identity. Culturally Deaf people view themselves as a linguistic minority.
10. Sign Language has adapted to fit the Zoom window. For example, the sign for “body,” usually produced by making a modified “B” hand shape and moving it from the shoulders to the hips, now ends at chest level. Unfortunately, the signing space is expansive, so although many signs can fit into the Zoom screen, many can’t.