"What is Sign Language?"

What is Sign Language?

by Christine Wixtrom

from:  The Deaf American  ·  Summer 1988

updated July 2000

That's a good question! There are many types of gestural communication, and sometimes the term "sign language" just doesn't make it clear which form is being discussed. Here are a few brief explanations to help clear up the confusion.


Fingerspelling is a method of representing the letters of the alphabet with the hand. Forming different shapes with your hand, you can spell out words such as: "H-O-W  A-R-E  Y-O-U?" Manual alphabets are not languages; they are visual codes for languages. The one-handed American Manual Alphabet is a code for English. (A two-handed manual alphabet is used in Europe.) There are different manual alphabets used to code different languages.


ASL is a visual-gestural language. ASL developed in a natural manner, as a means of clear visual communication used among deaf people. ASL was created by deaf people and belongs to their culture, Deaf Culture. Today, ASL is used by millions of Americans and Canadians of all ages. The units of ASL are composed of specific movements of the hands and arms, eyes, face, head and body posture. These movements, or gestures, represent concepts and serve as the "words" of the language. Precise syntactical rules and grammatical principles dictate proper ASL "word" (sign) order, tense indicators, intonation and other aspects of ASL language use. The grammar of ASL is completely different from (and unrelated to) the grammar of the English language. Linguistic research has shown, however, that ASL is as "rich" and "complete" as any spoken language.

(MCE may also be termed SSS, Sign Supported Speech, or SSE, Sign Supported English)

There are a number of signing systems that were artificially devised in order to teach English to deaf children. MCE systems use manual signs to represent English visually. Signs used in these systems may be taken from ASL, but these vocabulary units are used to represent English words (rather than to represent concepts, as they do in ASL). Some new signs are contrived (invented) for English words or word parts in these systems. All signs are used in English grammatical order. Thus, these forms of manual communication are not languages - they are systems. Using one of these manual systems along with spoken English is a method of communication called "simultaneous communication" ( or "sim-com"). Some MCE systems: Seeing Essential English (SEE1), Signing Exact English (SEE2), Linguistics of Visual English (LOVE) and Signed English (Bornstein, et al.).


When some ASL signs, some newer signs, some contrived signs and fingerspelling are used in flexible grammatical order, this is referred to as Pidgin Sign English. (Recent research has determined that "contact sign" is a more accurate term.) PSE is not a structured system, but a natural mix of two languages, ASL and English. One of the varieties within this category is Conceptually Accurate Signed English (CASE). Users of CASE will choose a sign on the basis of its meaning in ASL, rather than on the basis of its sound or spelling in English. The signs are used in English grammatical order, and may be accompanied by English mouth movements. (Note: Persons transferring someone else's spoken language into an English-like signed format are said to be transliterating. This is in contrast to the conveyance of a spoken English message into its equivalent in the language of ASL - or an ASL message into English - which is called interpreting.)


Pantomime is not "sign language." Pantomime is not a language at all. Pantomime includes motions, gestures and dramatics used to communicate. It is used in theatre, and between people who do not share a common language.


  1. ASL: A Look At Its History, Structure, and Community, by Charlotte Baker/Carol Padden
  2. Sign Language Interpreting: A Basic Resource Book, by Sharon N. Solow
  3. ASL: Fact and Fancy, by Harry Markowicz.

Reprinted with permission.

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