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Sign language is a language which chiefly uses manual communication to convey meaning, as opposed to acoustically conveyed sound patterns. This can involve simultaneously combining hand shapes, orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to express a speaker's thoughts. Sign languages share many similarities with spoken languages, which depend primarily on sound, which is why linguists consider both to be natural languages. There are however some significant differences between signed and spoken languages, such as how they use space grammatically, sign languages show the same linguistic properties and use the same language faculty as do spoken languages. They should not be confused with body language, which is a kind of non-linguistic communication.

Wherever communities of deaf people exist, sign languages have developed, and are at the cores of local deaf cultures. Although signing is used primarily by the deaf, it is also used by other people who can hear, but cannot physically speak.

It is not clear how many sign languages there are. Aside from the pidgin International Sign, each country generally has its own, native sign language, and some have more than one (although there are also substantial similarities among all sign languages). The 2013 edition of Ethnologue lists 137 sign languages. Some sign languages have obtained some form of legal recognition, like in South Africa, while others have no status at all.

In linguistic terms, sign languages are as rich and complex as any spoken language, despite the common misconception that they are not "real languages". Professional linguists have studied many sign languages and found that they exhibit the fundamental properties that exist in all languages. Today, linguists study sign languages as true languages, part of the field of linguistics.

A common misconception is that sign languages are somehow dependent on spoken languages: that they are spoken language expressed in signs, or that they were invented by hearing people. Sign languages, like all natural languages, are developed by the people who use them, in this case, deaf people, who may have little or no knowledge of any spoken language.

As a sign language develops, it sometimes borrows elements from spoken languages, just as all languages borrow from other languages that they are in contact with.

Types of Sign Languages

Sign languages generally do not have any linguistic relation to the spoken languages of the lands in which they arise. The correlation between sign and spoken languages is complex and varies depending on the country more than the spoken language. For example, the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand all have English as their dominant language, but American Sign Language (ASL), used in the US and most parts of Canada, is derived from French Sign Language whereas the other three countries sign dialects of British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language. Similarly, the sign languages of Spain and Mexico are very different, despite Spanish being the national language in each country, and the sign language used in Bolivia is based on ASL rather than any sign language that is used in a Spanish-speaking country. Variations also arise within a 'national' sign language which don't necessarily correspond to dialect differences in the national spoken language; rather, they can usually be correlated to the geographic location of residential schools for the deaf.

International Sign, formerly known as Gestuno, is used mainly at international Deaf events such as the Deaflympics and meetings of the World Federation of the Deaf. While recent studies claim that International Sign is a kind of a pidgin, they conclude that it is more complex than a typical pidgin and indeed is more like a full sign language.

Some countries which use a single spoken language throughout may have two or more sign languages, or an area that contains more than one spoken language might use only one sign language. South Africa, which has 11 official spoken languages and a similar number of other widely used spoken languages, is a good example of this. It has only one sign language with two variants due to its history of having two major educational institutions for the deaf which have served different geographic areas of the country.

South African Sign Language

South African Sign Language (SASL) is the official sign language used by Deaf people in South Africa. It is not an official language of South Africa. The South African government added a National Language Unit for South African Sign Language in 2001. SASL is not the only sign language used in South Africa, but it is the language that is being promoted as the language to be used by all Deaf people in South Africa, although the Deaf in South Africa historically do not form a single group.

In 1995, the previous South African National Council for the Deaf (SANCD) was transformed into the Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA), which resulted in a radical policy change in matters for deaf people in South Africa, such as the development and adoption of a single sign language and the promotion of sign language over oralism. Schools for the deaf have remained largely untransformed, however, and different schools for deaf children in South African still use different sign language systems, and at a number of schools for the deaf the use of any sign language is either discouraged or simply not taught. There are as many as twelve distinctly different dialects of sign language in South Africa.

In addition to South African sign languages, American Sign Language (ASL) is also used by some Deaf people in South Africa. Most local sign languages in South Africa show influence of American sign language.

SASL is the sign language that is used during television news casts in South Africa. Sign language is also used in the South African parliament, but different sign language interpreters are known to use different signs for the same concepts. There are around 40 schools for the Deaf in South Africa, most using a variety of SASL.

South African Sign Language is not entirely uniform and continues to evolve. Due to the geographical spread of its users and past educational policies, there are localised dialects of South African Sign Language and signs with many variants. Earlier efforts to create reference material and to standardise the language, such as books, can only be used as historical records of the language. Daily TV broadcasts in sign language give today's South African Sign Language its national cohesion and unity.

Official Recognition

"Sign language" is mentioned in the South African constitution, and the South African Schools Act permits the study of "sign language" in lieu of an official language studied at school.

Sign language is mentioned in four South African laws, namely the Constitution, the Use of Official Languages Act, the South African Schools Act, and the Pan South African Language Board Act.

General Recognition

The Constitution states that a board named the Pan South African Language Board should be established to "promote, and create conditions for, the development and use of ... sign language". In terms of the law that establishes the Pan South African Language Board (Act 59 of 1995), the board may establish language bodies to advise it on "any particular language, sign language or augmentative and alternative communication".

In terms of the Use of Official Languages Act, Act No. 12 of 2012, all government departments and government entities must have a language policy that states which languages are considered the official languages of that entity, and each language policy must also specify how that department or entity intends to communicate with people whose language of choice is "South African sign language".

Neither South African Sign Language nor any other sign language is an official language of South Africa. In 2008 the SASL Policy Implementation Conference gathered many key role players including scholars, researchers and teachers, policy makers, advocates and governmental bodies to promote South African Sign Language to become recognised as South Africa's twelfth official language.

Educational Recognition

According to the South African Schools Act, Act 84 of 1996, all schools must have a language policy, and that when selecting languages for such a policy, a "recognised Sign Language" should be evaluated as if it has official language status along with the other eleven official languages.

According to the "Language in Education" policy in terms of section 3(4)(m) of the National Education Policy Act, Act 27 of 1996, the main aims of the Ministry of Education’s policy for language in education include "to support the teaching and learning of all other languages required by learners or used by communities in South Africa, including languages used for religious purposes, languages which are important for international trade and communication, and South African Sign Language, as well as Alternative and Augmentative Communication".

South African Sign Language is accepted as one of the languages of instruction in the education of Deaf learners.


Fingerspelling is a manual technique of signing used to spell letters and numbers (numerals, cardinals). Therefore, fingerspelling is a sign language technique for borrowing words from spoken languages, as well as for spelling names of people, places and objects. It is a practical tool to refer to the written word.

Some words which are often fingerspelled tend to become signs in their own right (becoming "frozen"), following linguistic transformation processes such as alphanumeric incorporation and abbreviation. For instance, the sign-name for Cape Town uses incorporated fingerspelled letters C.T. ( transition from handshape for letter 'C' to letter 'T' of both wrists with rotation an horizontal axis). The month of July is often abbreviated as 'J-L-Y'.

Fingerspelling words is not a substitute for using existing signs : it takes longer to sign and it is harder to perceive. If the fingerspelled word is a borrowing, fingerspelling depends on both users having knowledge of the oral language (English, Sotho, Afrikaans). Although proper names (such as a person's name, a company name) are often fingerspelled, it is often a temporary measure until the Deaf community agrees on a Sign name replacement.

Sign-names and Idioms

Sign names are specific signs which are associated with proper names (a location, a person, an organisation). Sign names are often chosen based on a salient physical property. For instance, the sign name for Nelson Mandela is signed using a flat B-hand that follows a hair-line over the head. The sign name for the bank ABSA is made with both hands following the movement implied in the company corporate logo.


South Africa is one of a few countries to have legal recognition of sign language. There is presumably some regional variation, but signers from across the country can readily understand each other, as demonstrated for example at the annual Deaf Forum.

It is commonly believed among South Africans, even among deaf South Africans, that different language communities have different sign languages. This is evidently the result of the deaf not being able to understand sign-language interpreters from other communities. However, this is because such "interpreters" do not actually use sign language, but rather Signed English, Signed Xhosa, etc., and only those who have been schooled in these artificial codes can understand them. (See manually coded language in South Africa.)


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