Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Basic Color Terms in Estonian Sign Language

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Basic Color Terms in Estonian Sign Language

Article excerpt

In an article published in Sign Language Studies, Dan Slobin, a well-known linguist, argues that "we must expect any linguistic theory to be equally applicable to both [spoken and signed] types of language" (2008, 117). He continues that our research "must be directed at determining the level of comparison that leads to ageneral understanding of human languages, as well as the special characteristics of signed and spoken languages" (121).

First, in this article we apply Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's (1969) theory of basic color terms (BCTs) to Estonian Sign Language (ESL). According to this universalisa c theory, the color categories in any language become encoded in a certain order. Depending on the categories encoded Berlin and Kay described seven evolutionary stages in a language development. Every language possesses at least two BCTs - black and white (Stage I). If the language has three BCTs, it also has a term for "red" (Stage II). Next come yellow and green or green and yellow (Stages III and IV). Then follow blue (Stage V) and brown (Stage VI). On the final Stage VII gray, pink, orange, and purple become basic. Second, we discuss special characteristics of the expression of BCTs in ESL.

First we give an overview on the ESL. After that we introduce the theory of BCTs and the latest studies on BCTs in signed languages. Third, we explain our empirical research method (list task of the color names and color-naming task) and describe the fifty subjects who participated in our study. Finally we discuss our results. Special attention is given to the etymology of the color signs in ESL.

Estonian Sign Language

Estonian Sign Language (ESL) is used by Estonian deaf people and their families. According to different studies, deaf ESL users number between 1400 and 2000 (Laiapea, Miljan, Sutrop, and Toom 2003, 27> 51; Toom, Triikmann, and Hollman 2006, 285). Considering the average percentage of deaf people worldwide (0.1 percent of the world's population), one may assume that, despite the lack of a more definite estimate, the number of deaf people living in Estonia is approximately 1400-1500. In Sutrop (2000b), ESL is described under the language code eso.

The fact that most signers do not learn their primary language from their parents but from teachers and peers is characteristic of any sign language community, as 90-95 percent of deaf people are born into hearing families (Anderson 2006, 137; Kyle and WoIl 1995, 25; Laiapea 2003, 1904; Toom 2003, 185). The core of the signing deaf community is therefore quite small inasmuch as it includes only deaf people who have acquired sign language in their families. Bearing all of this in mind, one may conclude that ESL, which is currendy the primary language for approximately fifteen hundred people, is actually not the native first language for the whole community.

The history of sign languages is often related to the establishment of deaf schools. Although deaf people in Estonia in all probability used ESL to communicate long before deaf schools appeared, the development of ESL may also be very strongly related to the establishment of the first Estonian deaf school in 1866 (Laiapea 2001, 2610, Laiapea et al. 2003, I2)· The school was established in Vandra by a German Lutheran pastor, Ernst Sokolovski (Kotsar and Kotsar 1997, 9). Emphasizing the importance of verbal language in deaf education and the development of students' vocal skills, the first teacher, Johannes Eglon, used the oral teaching method. At the same time, he supported the use of sign language for student communication (Toom 2002, 26). In 1924 the school moved to Porkuni. The oral teaching method continued to be used, but despite this the school remained an important center of the deaf, where over time deaf people from different families and various parts of Estonia came together to form a signing environment and spend a considerable amount of time together.

Research on ESL began in the 1980s, and since the early 1990s ESL has been used as the teaching language in the educational system for deaf children. …

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