Linguistics/Sign Language

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Gestures vs. Sign Languages

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Gestures and sign languages are distinct. There are several types of gestures:

  • Iconics: They are a reflection of what the speaker actually says. For example, you could flap your arms when you say Birds can fly.
  • Deictics: We use them when we point to something. You could point to a dog and say, it's cute.
  • Beats: We tap with our hands or fingers in accordance to the rhythm of our speech, usually for emphasis. For example, a teacher may tap on the blackboard or her desk to highlight important words.

None of the above are similar to human languages like English or French. They do not express such a great variety of ideas, and are not systems of communication per se. They do not satisfy the unique design features of language, which we'll see later on. Sign languages are different: Sign languages are actual languages. They are made up of meaningful words and morphemes which themselves are composed of meaningless 'phonemes'. (Iconics, however, are sometimes linked to sign language, as we'll see below.)

Manually-Coded Languages vs. Sign Languages

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Sign languages are not, contrary to popular belief, manual representations of English or any other spoken language. They started out as, and continue to be, languages in their own right, with their own independent lexicon, syntax and morphology. Granted, words from spoken languages can be imported into sign languages, but the same phenomenon occurs between distinct natural languages.

However, manual representations of spoken languages, called manually-coded languages, are sometimes used for communication between the deaf and the hearing because it is far easier for a hearing person to gain competence in these languages. Signed English is an example of this. It is akin to speaking English with French words.