Spanish sign language

First, a personal note: I’m delighted to announce that I’ve signed a contract with Bloomsbury Academic Press to publish the book I’ve been working on the last few years, tentatively titled ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish. If you like my blog, you’ll love the book! Stay tuned for updates on the publication process. So far I’ve written 70 questions, so there’s a ways yet to go.

Lately I’ve been looking into Spanish sign language and wanted to share a terrific website, Sé, an on-line video dictionary of Lengua de signos española (LSE) and Lengua de signos catalana (LSC). Yes, there are separate sign languages for castellano and catalán (wouldn’t you know?) Here are the signs for artista in LSE and LSC.

The LSE/LSC split is just the beginning of the diversity of the Spanish sign language situation. Every Spanish speaking country has its own sign language, or even more than one. Some of these, including the sign languages of El Salvador, Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, derive from American Sign Language (which itself comes from French Sign Language, or LSF). Mexican sign language comes also from LSF, while Venezuelan sign languages is based on LSE. Many countries developed their own sign languages independently. This group includes Spain, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Nicaraguan sign language has given researchers a rare opportunity to observe the genesis of language, both first-hand and retrospectively. The Nicaraguan deaf community only coalesced in 1977, when a special education school opened in Managua, soon joined by a vocational center attended by many of the school’s graduates. Within six years enrollment in the two institutions had topped 400: a critical mass. By 1986 the idioma de señas de Nicaragua had taken shape and linguists began to catalog its progress. Today’s Nicaraguan deaf community includes the full spectrum of ISN signers, from children who are learning ISN as a first language to middle-aged Nicaraguans who participated in its creation. It’s a great population to study.

A good place to learn more about the various sign languages of the Spanish-speaking world is the SIL International website. (Obviously that list includes other countries too, but you can skip them.) The Nicaragua entry has lots of detail and references.

4 thoughts on “Spanish sign language

  1. Susan R

    ¡Felicidades! I have been thoroughly enjoying your blog ever since I found out about it and I look forward to the publication of your book. ¡Enhorabuena!

  2. Tracy / Latinaish

    Felicidades! So excited about your book deal. I’ll be first in line to buy it when it comes out!

    Sign language throughout the Spanish-speaking world is a fascinating topic. Even if different countries are based off ASL, do they still come up with a lot of unique slang? Would someone who speaks ASL be able to communicate well with someone who speaks the sign language of Mexico or El Salvador? Are there any words that are universal or super similar in all the countries?

    1. jhochberg Post author

      Tracy, what I wrote is pretty much at the limits of my knowledge! I wish that someone who knew more about these different languages would write a book for the rest of us.

      I think that someone who speaks ASL would be able to communicate with someone from Mexico or El Salvador about as well as two people who speak Italian vs. Spanish, but I really don’t know.

      What I do believe are universal are some gesturally natural ‘grammatical’ phenomena, like changing the location of a sign as a kind of “agreement”. For example, you could make the sign for ‘running’ close to yourself to show that you run (or ran), or closer to the person you’re signing to to show that they run. For the equivalent of the grammatical 3rd person, different locations in the ‘signing space’ can be assigned, during a conversation, to different entities discussed, so a sign made in one of those locations ‘agrees’ with that entity.

      Way cool, ¿no?


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