Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Emergence and Development of Signed Languages: From a Semiogenetic Point of View

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Emergence and Development of Signed Languages: From a Semiogenetic Point of View

Article excerpt

IN THE CURRENT SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE on signed languages (SLs), two major theoretical orientations can be identified.1 First, there has been a tendency to promote the legitimacy of SLs by highlighting their structural similarities to vocal languages. There has also been a second trend (the point of view presented in this article), one that advances the idea that certain characteristics of SLs are likely to shed new light on the phenomena of the creation, emergence, and development of human languages in general and signed languages in particular. Given some atypical conditions in die transmission and development of SLs, as well the existence of a variety of types of SLs-from homesigns, or emerging signed languages (ESLs), to microcommunity and macrocommunity SLs-it is productive to consider the process of emergence and development of SLs from both synchronie and diachronic perspectives.

Some linguistic structures of all SLs will share a certain number of characteristics owing to the visuo-gestural modality. The fourdimensional nature of the visuo-gestural channel leads to the existence of a set of resemblances among SLs. The arguments set forth here are based on a global theoretical framework known as a semiogenetic model (Cuxac 1996, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004), in which the inherent iconicity of signed languages is regarded as a foundational and an organizational principle.

This model assumes that all SLs currently used in the world have had the same starting point. They are presumed to have emerged from the same cognitive-communicational process defined by iconization of experiential devices anchored in the practical-perceptual world. This development appears in the first gesture creations of deaf children (of hearing parents) and could be followed in the structural ontogenetic evolution of ESLs used by deaf adolescents and adults living in hearing communities. This same process reaches different structural levels of diachronic evolution with the constitution of deaf microcommunities and with the widespread institutional experience, following the establishment of schools for deaf pupils, in which deaf children and adults eventually create deaf macrocommunities (Cuxac 2005). According to this model, the study of ESLs can bring new insights to the understanding of the initial stage (first scenario) in the emergence of all SLs.

Specific Aspects of the Transmission and Development of Signed Languages

Before beginning a discussion of the fundamental principles of the semiogenetic model, I would like to identify and highlight some of the unique conditions governing the transmission and development of all signed languages:

* delayed onset of acquisition of a signed language as the natural language of a deaf child (except in the case of a deaf child born to deaf parents): Because at least ninety percent of deaf children are born to hearing families, the majority of these children undergo a delay in the language acquisition process when compared to hearing children. However, lack of access to an established linguistic model does not prevent them from developing a gestural communication system exploiting linguistic principles similar to those found in infant language in general and in the signed languages of deaf children in particular (Volterra and Erting 1994; Goldin-Meadow 2003).

* lack of geographic unity for deaf communities: Regional concentrations of deaf people give rise to discontinuities with respect to community activities and educational practices.

* lack of integration of deaf adults into the general society, particularly in the educational sector: The majority of professionals specializing in deafness are hearing people who, even when they have mastered some of the lexicon of sign languages, generally do not have a thorough grasp of their linguistic organization.

* degree of awareness in deaf communities about their linguistic and institutional history: The more a deaf community is conscious of its past (linguistic and institutional), the more its attitudes about language will motivate the community members to preserve and study their language. …

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