The evolution of sign language

Published March 4, 2023

Four hands spell out L-O-V-E in American sign language

Last year one of my monthly projects was learning British Sign Language, which was really a lot of fun, very insightful whilst still being challenging, and something I want to dive into more. I stumbled across this article a while back, that discusses the evolution of language generally but more specifically how sign languages change with the times.

I found it a really interesting read. Sign language is, obviously, a completely visual medium and that means many of the individual signs reflect the subject in hand. I remember enjoying learning the hobbies category during my month of learning because they were all so easy - swimming is just miming swimming, tennis is swinging a racket, basketball bouncing a ball. Brilliant. But, of course, that’s only brilliant if you know the subject under discussion, and assuming that it doesn’t change.

The first example in the NY Times article shows how the sign for phone has evolved - it used to be with two hands to show an ear piece and holding the receiver up to your mouth. But obviously very few phones are like that now and the sign evolved over the years to now be more like holding a smartphone up to your ear.

It’s not just changes in gadgets that can affect this kind of thing. As more people communicate via screens now, signs have become more compact and focused on the top quarter of the body to ensure they can be seen in any medium. The post also talks about how variations occur in the different types of sign language - British, American, and Black American being three main ones. There are so many and sometimes can be very little crossover between them. I feel like it would be good for there to be a standard, but the problem with that is, as the post and our general experience in languages shows, it wouldn’t be long before they started to evolve and variants started to emerge again anyway.

Language is never static, and it doesn’t matter what format it comes in. But what specifically affects and alters modern languages is very interesting. I’ll be keeping an eye on what other changes are spotted in the future!

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