Linguistics story 2


Concern about the future of signed languages is not new, and efforts at documentation started more or less as soon as film was first invented. The famous films made by George Veditz and colleagues at the National Association of the Deaf (Schuchman, 2004) were motivated by a fear that American Sign Language (ASL) was endangered. Similarly, Davis (2010?) describes the films made of Plains Indian Sign Language in the 1930s…

Despite this history, Nonaka (2004) quite rightly described sign languages as “forgotten endangered languages.” While sign language linguists and Deaf communities have recognized the threats posed to many signed languages,[1] recent work on language endangerment and language documentation has largely overlooked them. Austin & Sallabank (2011) refer to Ahmad’s (2008) observation that most overviews of language endangerment make no mention of signed languages in the introduction to their Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages , but that publication makes no real attempt to rectify the situation: The index of languages lists 320 languages and language varieties, of which exactly none is a signed language.[2] Since it was established, Language Documentation and Conservation has published only one article dedicated specifically to work on the documentation of a signed language. That paper, Schembri, Fenlon, Rentelis, Reynolds, & Cormier (2013), focuses on the documentation of BSL, one of the small minority of signed languages which is not in imminent danger of disappearing.

One reason for this serious gap is that we still do not know how many sign languages there are in the world. The list in Ethnologue has been steadily growing over the past few years, and currently stands at 138 (Lewis, Simons, & Fennig, 2015). Skutnabb-Kangas (2011) has suggested that there may be as many signed languages in the world as there are spoken languages, though she acknowledges that: “[t]here is today no idea of how many Sign languages there are” (2011:182). Most sign language linguists seem to feel that this is probably an overestimate. Sandler (2006:940) rather conservatively reckoned that 103 was “probably an underestimate”. Zeshan, one of the pioneers in sign language typology, has suggested the number may be three of four times this number (Zeshan, 2006). The problem, as she has noted, is that the vast majority of research into signed languages to date has been focused in North America, Western Europe and Australasia, and that “barely anything is known about most sign languages in Asia, Africa, South America and Central America” (Zeshan 2013).

[1] For example, The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) and European Union of the Deaf (EUD) organized a conference on the theme “Sign Languages as Endangered Languages” in 2011.

[2] Plains Indian Sign Language and New Zealand Sign Language are mentioned in passing in the book, though neither appear in the Index of Languages.

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