The World Needs Sign Languages


Some specialists in the study of human language argue that the first form of human communication was gestural and that it gradually gave way to oral languages. Today, millions of Deaf people around the world use the full potential of Sign Language as a natural communication form but, historically, there have been many communities of hearing people who have used some kind of Sign Language.

Shoshone Chief Tendoi Demonstrating Sign Language (photo: Charles M. Bell, circa 1880, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

Plains Indian Sign Language

The Great Plains are a broad expanse of flat land stretching across the central United States and as far as Canada, where several indigenous communities live. There is evidence of European explorers who established fluid communication with these communities in the mid-16th century using the Plains Indian Sign Language. However, it may be thousands of years old.

Ilustración en prensa de 1900 mostrando algunos signos de los indígenas de Norteamérica (imagen: DP Lincoln County)

It is believed that this Sign Language emerged first for hunting or silently ambushing, and later spread as a form of communication in the commercial exchanges of the different indigenous tribes, i.e. as a lingua franca because each tribe had its own language.

Several video recordings of this Sign Language from the beginning of the 20th century can be found on the Internet, one of the longest is the next recorded in 1930 with a running time of 8 minutes:

You can see other video recordings of 1940 here, 1946 here, and 1970 here.

By the Aboriginal Australians

Australia's native people, usually called Aboriginal Australians, also had their own Sign Language for thousands of years and used it to hunt without scaring their prey, in ceremonies to their ancestors or to have secret conversations: the Yolŋu Sign Language.

For 25 years, anthropologist Bentley James has been learning and compiling this Sign Language which he hopes to publish in an illustrated manual in 2019 on the occasion of the International Day of Sign Languages (declared by the UN on 23 September). To do so, he started a crowdfunding campaign to raise 38,000$ and in just one month he got more than 42,000$.

Three generations of Australian Aborigines practicing Yolngu Sign Language (photo: David Hancock / Bentley James)

Ottoman Empire's Sign Language

In the Ottoman Empire since the fourteenth century had two strange traditions: on the one hand, due to the tendency to fratricide (murder of brothers) by the power struggles of the sultanate (monarch who held power), was imposed the tradition of confining the princes in a palatial places called kafes (cages). Only one of them may go free: the inheritor to the throne.

On the other hand, in addition to being confined and without communication with the outside world, they were compelled to live as quietly as possible, since it was considered indecorous to talk too much, not even with their servants. For this reason, the possible inheritors of the sultanate, could spend many years in the cages and developed psychological disorders or even committed suicide.

Osman II, the sultan between 1618 and 1622, changed somewhat: since most of the servants and officials of the palace had to be deaf so that no one could communicate with them, Osman II began to communicate in Ottoman Sign Language, becoming his only way of communication. During his reign Osman II had more than 100 deaf people at his service, with whom he had rich and complex conversations in Ottoman Sign Language, transmitting these complex ideas to the youngest servants through fables and stories.

Osman II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire who communicated with his servants in Sign Language

In the Noisy Sawmills

It is common that in very noisy places, such as factories, boat engine rooms or any place with very noisy machinery, the people who work there develop some forms of gestural communication.

However, sawmill workers in British Columbia (western Canada) developed authentic signed communication systems that allowed them, albeit limitedly, not only to communicate about their work but also to talk about sports, to gamble, to tell jokes and to joke with each other, among many other things. All this was documented by three linguists in the mid-1970s.

Four signs used in sawmills: some more iconical, such as woman (128) and "what time is it?" (126), others more complex such as weak (125) and week (127) (illustration:  Diana Philpott, A Dictionary of Sawmill Workers’ Signs)

Other sawmills in the United States have also developed signed communication systems, such as those around Lake Michigan. In one of these sawmills, Menominee Tribal Enterprise, this Sign Language has been passed down from generation to generation among sawmill workers.

Charles James, a wood inspector at the Menominee Tribal Enterprises sawmill in Neopit, greets in his sign language (photo: Sarah Kloepping / USA Today Network)

In the Prisons of the Dominican Republic

In 2017, a film entitled Woodpeckers was released, in which men in prison have to use an invented Sign Language to communicate remotely with women, whom they called "carpinteo". The film is based on real facts and its director, Jose Maria Cabral, said about the film during an award ceremony:
One of the most important things I learned in the Woodpeckers process was to discover the human need, such as eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, moving, was communication. And not just any communication, with the sign language of "carpinteo" they fall in love.

Tolkien's Invented Language

In the fantastic universe of the British writer J.R.R. Tolkien, there were all kinds of fictitious languages, as Tolkien was also a philologist by profession. Among the many languages of his novels, there were two Sign Languages: the Elf Sign Language (Hwerme) and the Sign Language of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor (Iglishmek).

The first was used by the Elves because they had excellent sight and used it to communicate at a distance. The second, used by the dwarves, Tolkien said that it was much more elaborate than Hwerme and was taught to children from the moment they began to speak. The dwarves used it mainly to keep communication secret from non-dwarfs.

Tolkien knew Sign Language, having enrolled in the British Army in his youth with the rank of second lieutenant specializing in Sign Language and serving as a communications officer in the bloody Battle of the Somme during the World War I.

Although they were not real languages, he deserves a place in this article, because the novel The Hobbit was published in 1937. In the film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, you can briefly see one of the dwarves, Bifur, saying something in Iglishmek Sign Language:

Bifur, dwarf in The Hobbit, expressing something in Iglishmek, sign language of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor


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