Multilingualism: The global approach
to sign languages
Bencie Woll, Rachel Sutton-Spence and Frances Elton
A language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Anon
And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. Genesis 11:1
Sign language is sometimes called gesture speech as it is a method of conversing by means of gestures or signs. It is a form of speech in use among civilised and savage races, which is perfectly understood, and although greatly limited in its forms of expression by those who have spoken language, rich in its vocabulary and possessed of an extensive literature. John Maclean, 1896
This chapter provides an overview of the occurrence and distribution of sign languages around the world. Every year, the existence of more sign languages and more signing communities is being recognized. Lexicography (the making of sign language dictionaries) and analyses of the structure and use of these languages follow recognition and play a key role in the empowerment of deaf people. This chapter provides an estimate of the number of sign languages in existence and describes the diversity of Deaf communities using sign languages. It outlines the different factors we need to consider when describing the existence of any language and shows why it is so difficult to provide an exact description of the distribution of sign languages.
Sign languages are used by deaf people around the world. In the past, many people believed that signing was an international form of communication (e.g. Bulwer, 1644; see also Mirzoeff, 1995 and Rée, 1999 for descriptions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century beliefs about the international nature of “gesture languages”). This was based on the erroneous belief that sign languages are nothing more than gesture and that gesture is universal. However, linguists now know that sign languages use conventionalized signs and that these conventionalized signs vary from language to language. It is also not true that gestures are internationally understood. Many gestures made by users of spoken languages are specific to a given culture.