Learn about the language of sign and how it was not regarded as a real language at first and learn 10 new words in context as this is a new Word Power episode from English Plus Podcast.

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The Language of Sign

When American Sign Language (ASL) was introduced in the early 1800s, it was regarded as no more than a form of pidgin English. However, it differed from other forms of pidgin English in that it consisted of a combination of gestures that looked like the ideas or words the gestures were supposed to represent. Assuming that language must be based on speech or modulations of sound, linguists regarded as heresy the notion that signed languages are natural languages like English, French, and Chinese. In the past twenty years, however, linguists have acknowledged that signed languages like ASL are as powerful and intricately structured as spoken ones, and that they are capable of expressing the subtle shades of meaning possible with spoken languages.

Just as speakers combine meaningless bits of sound into meaningful words, signers unite individually meaningless hand and body movements into words. They choose from a palette of assorted hand shapes, such as a fist or a pointed index finger. They also choose where to make a sign and how to orient the hand and the arm. Each shape and position provides context clues to the intended meaning. Furthermore, ASL has a key language ingredient: a grammar to regulate its flow. For example, a signer might make the sign for ‘Jane” at some point in space. By pointing to that spot later, the signer creates the pronoun she or her, meaning Jane. A sign moving toward the spot means something done to her; a sign moving away from the spot means an action done by her. Facial expressions and head movements also function as grammatical markers, providing crucial linguistic information. A head tilted forward and raised eyebrows, for instance, turn a statement into a question.

This complex system of gestures sheds new light on the old scientific controversy over whether language is an innate human instinct or learned behavior. Linguists have reasoned that if ASL is a true language, unconnected to speech, then our proclivity for language must be built in at birth, whether we express it with our tongue or with our hands. The work of research psychologists supports this belief; deaf babies of deaf parents babble in sign. Just as hearing infants create nonsense sounds as their first attempts at language, so, too, do deaf babies, but they do so with their hands. Their systematic hand and finger movements, totally unlike those of hearing children, are a way of exploring the linguistic units that will be the building blocks of their language.

Like any living language, ASL is dynamic and continues to evolve. For example, terms that were visual representations of ethnic stereotypes have been replaced by finely tuned, sensitized signs. The language of sign is hardly silent; instead, it is alive with unique patterns that communicate meaning.

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