Sign Languages

By Rankin, Miako | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Sign Languages


Rankin, Miako, Sign Language Studies


Sign Languages, edited by Diane Brentari (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 691 pp., ISBN 978-0-52-188370-2)

The task is daunting: to survey sign language linguistic study to date, to create a work that will stand among its Cambridge Language Surveys series siblings as representative of not just the typological features but also the genetic relationships and sociolinguistic issues of signed languages around the globe, to introduce spoken language linguists to the field-broadening insights of the visual modality, to provide an introductory framework for students of deaf studies and sign language studies that is simultaneously enticing and relevant for those who have laid the linguistic groundwork in our field. A daunting task indeed.

Having been assigned to the task, Sign Languages, edited by Diane Brentari, takes on its role with remarkable grace and poise. Though fifty years ago one could scarcely imagine the linguistic study of signed languages, a mere half century later the idea of a single-volume survey of sign language seems unequal to the task. So much ground has been broken, so many questions have been studied, so many approaches applied, and so many languages explored, yet we have only begun to scratch the surface. Sign Languages situates itself clearly and specifically at this moment in the development of our field.

Rather than attempt to paint one single picture representing linguistic findings about signed languages the world over, Sign Languages pieces together chapters, resulting in a kaleidoscopic image. Findings and examples from more than forty sign languages are included in the volume, throwing light on both the myriad sign languages that exist and the remarkable dearth of knowledge about them and the people who use them in so many areas of the world. The volume is populated with the work of more than fifty scholars at varying stages of their careers, writing individually and collectively to shape pieces of the image into unique sizes and shapes. Each chapter stands alone, and yet all work together, showing parallels across languages and his- tory and approaches, while at the same time drawing our mind's eye to the vivid contrasts. The three section divisions in the book work as primary colors by tying the disparate aspects of the image together.

The first section describes the history and transmission of cer- tain sign languages across generations, focusing primarily on areas for which there has been less documentation of the transmission process and/or where the process of transmission has been different from that found in the most widely studied cases. This purposeful choice to highlight languages and areas that are less well known carries through- out the book and serves as a welcome and all-too-often necessary reminder of the breadth of experience of sign language users. At the same time, the authors in the volume overtly recognize that their accounts of language use are by no means evenly weighted due to scarcity of information available and the difficulty in gaining access to the necessary foundational statistics, reliable language examples, and signing communities, as well as to the constraints of writing a single chapter and making the larger notions as generalizable as possible.

All of the chapters in the transmission section follow a similar outline: first situating each sign language within the country's spoken- language situational context and then tracing the sign-language situ- ation in that country through official recognition, use in educational settings, relationship of the signing community to national society, and linguistic research, all the way to opinions on the future of each lan- guage. Chapter 2, titled "Transmission of Sign Languages in Northern Europe," for example, focuses on Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. The authors highlight the fact that the ways in which sign languages in these countries have been transmitted are different from those of other European and North American sign languages. …

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