The Historical Relationship between Triestine Sign Language and Austrian Sign Language

By Dotter, Franz; Bidoli, Cynthia J. Kellett | Sign Language Studies, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

The Historical Relationship between Triestine Sign Language and Austrian Sign Language


Dotter, Franz, Bidoli, Cynthia J. Kellett, Sign Language Studies


An international cooperation agreement established several years ago between the University of Trieste in Italy and the Alpen-Adria Universität in Klagenfurt, Austria, has enabled staff members involved in sign language teaching and research to meet regularly, owing to the relative nearness of the two cities. During numerous encounters (workshops, seminars, and conferences), the teams communicated in a mixture of Italian Sign Language (Lingua dei Segni Italiana, or LIS), Triestine Sign Language (Lingua dei Segni Triestina; henceforth LST), Austrian Sign Language (Österreichische Gebärdensprache, or ÖGS), especially in its Carinthian variant (Kärntner Gebärdensprache; henceforth ÖGS-K), and International Sign.1 It soon became apparent that many signs in LST were the same as or very similar to ÖGS-K signs. Thus, after considering previous research in Trieste (cf. Alloisio 2004/2005, 2008; Corazza and Lerose 2008; Stibiel 2003/2004), we discussed whether an intriguing line of research could be formulated on the similarities and differences between signs used in Trieste and Austrian Sign Language.

Historical Background

As the majority of children who are deaf from birth are born to hearing parents and in centuries past had no modern-day speech therapists on hand, they either succumbed to becoming isolated "deaf-mutes," as they were called in the past,2 or learned a local sign language variant from other deaf people close to them (or from their deaf parents if born into a deaf family). Deaf people have always adopted visual means of communication: gestures and signs. Most signs are passed on from generation to generation in Deaf communities, but others have been created spontaneously to enrich local sign languages and to adapt to social change. In each family or community, signs took on different configurations and meanings in isolated pockets or whole communities. Therefore, there is no single universal sign language among Deaf people, as most hearing people believe, but a considerable number of scattered dialects or variants.3

Due to different forces at play in signed languages, such as a different use of iconic devices or borrowing, they change over time, often carrying different meanings (an occurrence that is valid also for spoken-language change and contact). For example, in LIS, rome means name in American Sign Language (ASL; Radutzky 1983, 156) and ill in some variants of ÖGS. Despite this seemingly confusing fact, deaf people are able to communicate better than hearing people across language barriers, as confirmed during our bilateral encounters, because the iconicity of many signs leads to the recognition of referential meaning and because deaf people can resort to other signed varieties or even mime (in which they have more experience than the hearing population) (ibid., 157).

We are unaware of any diastratic studies documenting specific signed dialects or regional variants in Italy apart from Radutzky (1983) on the Rome variant and Corazza and Lerose (2008) on the one in Trieste. Sign language research projects in Italy focus on different aspects of LIS, mainly lexico-morphosyntactic aspects, as well as on education, language acquisition, and interpreting, among others.4 Historical studies have concentrated mainly on past educators of deaf people in the Italian peninsula. Interest in diachronic changes to signs was inspired by two nineteenth-century volumes describing signs (Borsari 1855 and Pendola 1882, cited in Radutzky 2000). Radutzky (1983, 1989, 1990, 2009) undertook research on signs mainly from Rome as well as Turin, Genoa, Catania, and the Umbria region to see how their phonology has changed over time. Regarding dialects in ÖGS, we can only refer to LEDA SILA (online LExical DAtabase for SIgn LAnguage), which shows various dialectal forms in Austria.5

The following sections outline the general development of LIS and ÖGS and then undertake a more detailed inquiry into the history of LST and ÖGS-K. …

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