Is Sign Language Universal?

Sign language is a communication method used to communicate with deaf people by using manual hand gestures. In general, sign languages often have little to do with the language they originate from and the differences between sign languages can vary widely and for multiple and complex reasons.

One geographical region could have multiple sign languages, or could be using a different country’s sign language to communicate. For instance, in Spain and Mexico, even though the dominant language across both countries is Spanish, each country uses a different sign language. What’s even more confusing is that American Sign Language is actually derived from French Sign Language.

Conversely, in a country like South Africa, where there are thousands of different languages and dialects, they only have one sign language that is used across the country’s deaf population. One of the major effects on which variation of sign language deaf people learn can potentially depend on the geographical location of the school for the deaf, if attended. 

WIthin the world of sign language, our respect for the hard of hearing can often start with our education. It can be important to educate ourselves and others around us in order to show empathy and understand their plight. In trying to understand the world of sign language you may be wondering if sign language is universal.

What Do We Mean by ‘Universal’?

To understand if sign language is universal we should first consider what we actually mean by the term universal. As communication is such a geographically and contextually specific construction, that is intertwined with both culture and history, it’s important to recognise that even within spoken language there is no universal standard.

For instance, in the UK you can move from one city to the next and the dialectal differences in lexicon as well as the accents can differ widely within only a short distance. Certain sign languages actually have their own versions of dialect that can be specific to a certain geographical location, which makes the idea of a universal sign language problematic.

On the other hand, the idea of a universal, yet non verbal, language isn’t so far fetched. For instance, no matter who was in front of me, I could rely on non verbal signals to communicate. For instance, if you put your finger to your lips you are clearly communicating to someone to be quiet, or if you wag your finger you are saying no.

Body language, much like how animals communicate within species, can also be considered a universal sign language. If someone is crying, for example,  we know they are in distress and need help.

However, when people refer to a universal sign language they are often referring to the concept that due to the physical nature of signing, there could be a universal way of communicating with deaf people, no matter their nationality or culture.

International Sign (IS)

You may be surprised to know there is a ‘universal’ sign language. Well, International Sign is ‘universal’ insofar that it is able to be used by all those who have learned it. It is a language created with the intention of becoming universal, rather than a language that is universal by nature.

The intention of International Sign, in addition to creating a universal standard, is that if there is an international sign language then this has an important use for things like public health and safety announcements. The idea is that International Sign would function much like braille does for the blind, braille is universal by nature and is perfect for using on medical packaging and public transport to name only a few of its applications. 

International Sign has successfully been used in international events such as the Deaflyimpics and the World Federation of the Deaf, which both promote International Sign as a universal sign language. 

The need to create a universal sign language was first brought to the World Federation of the Deaf in 1951 during the federation’s formation. The development of International Sign happened mainly among its users and hearing interpreters rather than a governing body such as the World Federation for the Deaf.

What occurred was the formation of a pidgin between two deaf speakers who didn’t share a common sign language. A pidgin is a grammatically simplified language that is formed by two people who don’t share a common language, deaf or otherwise.

As a result, the federation formed what was known as ‘The Commission of Unification of Signs’ who published a standardised vocabulary, which intended to use popular and easy signs common among deaf people of different countries. This was known as Gestuno (a blend of ‘gesture’ and ‘oneness’) and subsequently a book was published in the early 1970s called ‘Gestuno: International Sign Language of the Deaf’, which contained around 1500 universal signs. 

However, at the Word Federation for the Deaf’s 1976 Congress in Bulgaria, the crowd of deaf attendees was addressed with Gestuno which failed, no one could understand it at the time. This demonstrates the issues of creating a universal sign language; as a result Gestuno was abandoned and International Sign came into existence which adapted more grammatical functions such as role shifting and classifiers. The language grew by adopting ‘loan’ signs from other popular sign languages and making them universal. 

Final thoughts

So, the answer is no – universal sign language isn’t such a simple idea as it seems and doesn’t currently exist. There are potential sign languages that are attempting to be known as a universal sign language, but they aren’t objectively ‘universal’ by any means.

There are many reasons why people may or may not want a universal sign language to exist, and it has been an idea that people have been trialling since the 1950s. It definitely would be useful within the realm of public service announcements and on public transport.

However, many deaf people enjoy having a depth and complexity to their own modes of communication. Deaf people can still use dialectal language, and enjoy championing their culture this way. Languages are geographically specific for a reason and relate to the lexical categories that are geographically specific to an area such as food, animals, weather, and religion.