5 Facts About Sign Language Research

September 23rd was declared by the UN as the International Day of Sign Languages/Signs (you can see the official resolution here). On the occasion of this date, you might like to know five facts about sign language research.
William C. Stokoe (photo: Lynn Johnson, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia)

1. The Oldest Paper

It is not easy to identify the oldest paper on Sign Language. For Microsoft Academic, the first publication in the history of sign language dates from 1927, but it does not refer to the Sign Language of Deaf people, but to the form of communication used by the native Indian population of North America (it can be downloaded for free as a PDF from here).

However, the oldest papers on Sign Language may be those of the University of Gallaudet. No less than in 1847 they published the first issue of the historic American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb. The first article that uses the word 'signs' in its title is from October 1851, and is entitled 'Advantages and Disadvantages of the Use of Signs' and is signed by John Carlin [1], a birth Deaf person quite prodigious for his time, as he was a prolific painter and writer of poems, something unprecedented at the time for a person who had never heard speech [2]. Carlin was also one of the people who promoted the founding of what would later become the University of Gallaudet, and he is credited with the idea of putting up a monument to Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet with Alice Cogswell.

Cover of an 1848 issue of the American Annals of the Deaf (left) and text of the first article published in this journal mentioning the signs in 1851 (right)


Along the magazine, sign language was called 'natural signs', 'colloquial signs', 'sitematic signs' or 'methodical signs' until, finally, it appears in the title of an article in 1858 as sign language and entitled 'Mode of learning the sign language' [3]. In the same year, an article was published in another journal simply entitled 'Sign language' [4], which dealt with the life of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and began with a very interesting anecdote:
Im the summer of 1818, a young Chinese passed through Hartford, and spent an evening with Mr. Gallaudet. He was so ignorant of the English language that he could not express it in his simplest wishes. Mr Gallaudet introduced him to M. Clerc, a deaf mute from birth, who did not know a single word of Chinese. No two persons, therefore, could possibly be brought together more disqualified for colloquial intercourse. The result, however, surprised all present. M. Clerc learned from the Chinese many interesting facts regarding his birth-place, his parents and their family, his occupations at home, and his ideas of God and a future state. By the aid of proper signs, also, M. Clerc ascertained the meaning of about twenty Chinese words. So remarkable was Mr. Gallaudet's success in the sign-language, as frequently to astoaish strangers.
Thus, the first scientific publication in history with a title referring to signs dates from 1851 and the first article with the title of sign language dates from 1858. There are several things to note:
  • That these papers were not really scientific even though they appear in scientific journals.
  • That the sign language terms probably appeared earlier, but not in the titles.
  • That the first written appearance of sign language is actually from 1824, according to the Merrian Webster dictionary.
(all articles published in the American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb between 1847 and 1886 are available free of charge in PDF here)


2. Unstoppable Scientific Work

Since then, the number of published research papers has increased timidly until the first decade of the 21st century (2000-2010), when scientific output skyrocketed. For example, more research was published in 2006 than between 1927 and 1980: 566 papers were published in just one year compared to 507 in the previous five decades.

Number of scientific publications on Sign Language per year, between 1970 and 2019 (own elaboration from Microsoft Academic)

In total there are about 17,000 scientific publications so far, according to Microsoft Academic, and the most prolific year was 2015 with almost 1,200 publications in a single year. Obviously, the impact has also been increasing in line with the number of publications, with 2014 being the year with the greatest impact with 17,810 citations (if you don't know how to measure the impact of a scientific publication, here is an explanation).

Number of citations to scientific publications on sign language per year, between 1970 and 2019 (own elaboration from Microsoft Academic)


3. The Most Prolific Researchers

In the last decade, some researchers have been working frantically and publishing several times a year. For example, Bencie Woll from the UK and Karen Emmorey from the US have published an average of four to six research papers, articles or books each year between 1998 and 2020.

In the following list of the 10 most prolific researchers of the last decade, we can see that they belong to only five countries: Germany, the United States, Israel, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. It is also interesting to note that 60% are women and there is only one Deaf researcher.

Researchers with the largest number of publications
on sign language between 1998 and 2020 (own elaboration from Microsoft Academic)
Researcher Country Sex Person Main line of research Total publications
Bencie Woll United Kingdom Woman Hearing Deafness, Cognition and Language 146
Karen Emmorey United States Woman Hearing Sign Language, Cognition and Brain 87
Onno Crasborn The Netherlands Man Hearing Sign Language Linguistics 76
Wendy Sandler Israel Woman Hearing Sign Language Linguistics 72
Susan Goldin-Meadow United States Woman Hearing Language Development 65
Gary Morgan United Kingdom Man Deaf Language Acquisition in Deaf Children 63
Marc Marschark United States Man Hearing Education of Deaf Children 53
Hermann Ney Germany Man Hearing Video Recognition of Sign Language 44
Carol Padden United States Woman Hearing Sign Langauge, Communication and Culture 43
Rachel I. Mayberry United States Woman Hearing Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics in Language Acquisition 43


4. The Universities That Do Most Research

We can find out which universities publish the most research, although it should be borne in mind that the number of research publications is not related to the scientific impact or quality of the research.

According to Microsoft Academic, among the 20 universities and research centres in the world that have published the most research on Sign Language, eleven are in the United States (55% of the total), two in Germany, two in the United Kingdom, two in China, one in France, one in Israel and one in the Netherlands. In the following graph they are ordered from the most to the least number of publications in the last two decades:

Universities with the highest number of research publications on sign language between 1998 and 2020 (own elaboration from Microsoft Academic)

An interesting fact is that only six of the 20 universities are private, i.e. 70% of the universities that publish the most research on sign language are public.


5. The Most Influential Research

William C. Stokoe was an American linguist and researcher who had a profound impact on the modern linguistics of Sign Language, as he made a rich description of the complex linguistic properties of Sign Language that contributed decisively to its recognition as a natural language in Deaf people. So it is not surprising that Stokoe's work published in 1960 and entitled 'Sign language structure: An outline of the visual communication systems of the American deaf' is the most cited in history in relation to sign language: almost three thousand subsequent publications refer to Stokoe's work, which is a measure of his enormous scientific impact.     

Research with the greatest impact
on sign language between 1927 and 2020 (own elaboration)
Citations Source Type Reference
2.934 Scholar Paper Stokoe Jr, W. C. (2005). Sign language structure: An outline of the visual communication systems of the American deaf. Journal of deaf studies and deaf education, 10(1), 3-37. [original published in 1960]
1.517 Scholar Paper Starner, T., Weaver, J., & Pentland, A. (1998). Real-time american sign language recognition using desk and wearable computer based video. IEEE Transactions on pattern analysis and machine intelligence, 20(12), 1371-1375.
1.445 Scholar Book Liddell, S. K. (2003). Grammar, gesture, and meaning in American Sign Language. Cambridge University Press.
1.313 Academic Book Lane, H. L., Hoffmeister, R., & Bahan, B. J. (1996). A journey into the DEAF-WORLD. Dawn Sign Press.
1.269 Scholar Book Sandler, W., & Lillo-Martin, D. (2006). Sign language and linguistic universals. Cambridge University Press.
1.177 Academic Book Emmorey, K. (2001). Language, cognition, and the brain: Insights from sign language research. Psychology Press.
1.106 Scholar Book Battison, R., & Baird, E. (1978). Lexical Borrowing in American Sign Language.
1.081 Scholar Paper Wittenburg, P., Brugman, H., Russel, A., Klassmann, A., & Sloetjes, H. (2006). ELAN: a professional framework for multimodality research. In 5th International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation (LREC 2006) (pp. 1556-1559).
1.032 Scholar Paper Starner, T., y Pentland, A. (1997). Real-time american sign language recognition from video using hidden markov models. In Motion-based recognition (pp. 227-243). Springer, Dordrecht.
1.023 Scholar Book Groce, N. E. (1985). Everyone here spoke sign language: Hereditary deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. Harvard University Press.

As it could not be otherwise, four of the ten works with the greatest scientific impact in history deal with purely linguistic issues of Sign Language, but it is remarkable that in this top ten two researches on video recognition of Sign Language have been placed and that both are from 1997 and 1998. In addition, one of these researches - that of 1998 - is the second most cited research on Sign Language in history after Stokoe.

In any case, there is one researcher who stands out on this list: Karen Emmorey (San Diego State University, USA), because in addition to being one of the most prolific researchers of the last two decades, as we have seen in point 3, she is also the one who has written one of the books with the greatest impact factor in history (in 2001).



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