You probably already know that most spoken languages belong to a language family. But did you know that many sign languages do as well? Although linguistic research into sign languages lags behind spoken languages, at least six language families have been identified along with numerous isolates. Here’s a look at all six families and where they’re used throughout the world.
The Arab sign language family is made up of variations of sign languages that are used throughout the Middle East. Its sentence structure is similar to spoken Arabic. However, unlike spoken Arabic, there’s no distinction between a formal and colloquial sign language. Dialects include: Levantine, Iraqi, Yemini, Kuwaiti, Egyptian, and Libyan sign languages.
The term BANZSL stands for British, Australia, and New Zealand sign languages. All three variations are dialects of the same language, and trace their roots back to sign language in 19th century Britain. They use the same grammar, manual alphabet, and have similar vocabulary.
It’s also used in Northern Ireland, South Africa, The Maritimes, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
French sign languages descend from Old French Sign Language, which was developed by the deaf community in Paris. It can be traced back as far as the 17th century, but is likely older. It’s used in Western Europe, North America, Francophone Africa, and parts of Asia. American Sign Language (ASL) belongs to this family, and the French dialect is still used in Philadelphia.
The German sign language family includes German Sign Language, Polish Sign Language, and Israeli Sign Language. Although the German dialect is used in Germany and within German-speaking communities in Belgium, it’s unrelated in spoken German.
Japanese Sign Language (JSL), Korean Sign Language (KSL), and Taiwanese Sign Language (TSL) belong to the Japanese Sign Language family. JSL was standardized in 1908, and has a heavy influence on KSL and TSL due to Japan’s presence in the region. All three are mutually intelligible, and have grammatical structures and features that aren’t found in their spoken counterparts.
The Swedish Sign Language family includes the sign languages used in Sweden, Finland, and Portugal. Swedish Sign Language (SL) may have descended from British Sign Language, and later gave rise to Portuguese and Finnish sign languages. While Danish Sign Language belongs to the French family, it’s mutually intelligible with Swedish SL. However, despite being in the same family, Finnish and Swedish SL aren’t mutually intelligible.
Sign Language Isolates
In addition to the major language families, numerous sign language isolates exist. These include:
- Chinese Sign Language
- Hawai’i Sign Language
- Inuit Sign Language
- Mauritian Sign Language
- Nicaraguan Sign Language
- Peruvian Sign Language
As you can see sign languages are just as diverse as spoken languages. Some reach as far as four continents, while others share few similarities with national spoken languages.
By understanding their unique histories and cultures, you’ll be better prepared to serve members of the deaf community within your own country. And if you live in a region where American Sign Language (ASL) is widely used, Boostlingo can help. Our ASL 24/7 service let’s you connect with a remote interpreter whenever you need one.
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