5 fun FAQ’s about Sign Language

video in Dutch Sign Language, ‘sign-danced’ by Mirjam Stolk

5 fun FAQ’s about Sign Language

My friend Laurien and I work at a school for the Deaf.

A few weeks ago, while sipping tea, she asked me: “Ester, what’s the first question people always ask you about Sign Language?” I said: “Oh, that’s an easy one! ‘Is Sign Language universal?'” And then I would answer: “No it isn’t!” and then they would counter: “Well, that’s dumb!” And I would explain:” Why? Spoken languages aren’t universal either *!” And they would look at me sheepishly…
Laurien chuckled exasperated: “INDEED! That’s what they always ask me TOO!!!”

That’s why I decided to write a post about Sign Language. Just for those who are curious and interested in different cultures.

1)Is Sign Language universal?

Answer: No it isn’t you dummies!@^$!
There are many different Sign Languages. In my country we have Dutch Sign Language (Nederlandse Gebaren Taal or NGT) and in the United States Deaf people and their friends use ASL: American Sign Language.
And here’s the shocker: In Britain, British Sign Language (BSL) is being spoken, but ASL and BSL are NOT mutually understandable!!!
What the heck is THAT for?:
Just think simple: Languages develop in communities living closely together. In the past, NGT even consisted of 5 different dialects! Thanks to webcamming and standardization the dialects sort of blended into each other.

2) But, you mean Sign Languages are REAL languages: they aren’t made up by some scientist-dude or teacher??

Answer: Duh! No, they aren’t.

They developed gradually. “For example: ASL [as well as all other Sign Languages] is a natural language as proven to the satisfaction of the linguistic community by William Stokoe, and contains phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax and pragmatics just like spoken languages.
The language continues to grow and change like any living language. In particular, ASL constantly adds new signs in an attempt to keep up with constantly changing [times and] technology.”#

3) But they DO have the same grammar as spoken languages, don’t they?

Answer: No they don’t, but it’s an interesting question though.
Here’s an example from NGT showing it has a different word order than spoken Dutch:

Ik eet een appel. (I eat an apple) Spoken Dutch

Ik APPEL EET ik (I APPLE EAT I). Dutch Sign Language (NGT)

While spoken languages are produced by the vocal cords  only, and can thus be easily written in linear patterns, ASL uses the hands, head and body, with constantly changing movements and orientations. Like other natural sign languages, it is “three dimensional” in this sense #[or simultaneous grammar instead of linear].

4)If Sign Languages aren’t universal how do deaf people from different countries communicate?

Answer: Good question again! I like curious scholars!
Since Sign Languages are communicated in visual/manual mode instead of auditive/oral, Signers are already very visually oriented and it’s often easier for them to communicate with each other ‘with hands and feet’ than say an Englishman and a Chinese person. Often they also learn another Sign Language, just like we would learn French.
That brings me to the last question that’s often asked:

5)Is it possible to communicate abstract topics like science or maths in Sign Language?

Answer: If you already know Sign Languages are natural, have a grammar of their own and highly developed on their own countries, then you might also guess that Deaf people and their friends want to talk about more than eating apples en can do so very well and fast too.

In this respect it may be helpful to discriminate between 3 types of signs:

“Edward Klima and Ursula Bellugi have modified the common theory that signs can be self-explanatory by grouping signs into the following categories:”#

  1. Transparent: Non-signers can usually correctly guess the meaning (e.g. NGT sign: EAT: making shoving-food-actions towards your mouth)
  2. Translucent: Meaning makes sense to non-signers once it is explained (e.g. NGT: COFFEE: making a coffee-grinder action with your hands)
  3. Opaque: Meaning cannot be guessed by non-signers (e.g. NGT: HOLIDAY: repeating movements with your whole hand near the corner of your mouth)

And if you don’t know the sign, or want to sign names of people and places: you just use the hand alphabet. The Dutch and the American are mainly the same, but for example the one for BSL is different (it is signed with both hands).


This was my first blogpost on Sign Language. I hoped it satisfied some of your curiosity and I also hope you liked Mirjam Stolk’s sign-dancing video. You can learn more about her on her website.

Let me know if you have any questions or remarks on the topic of Sign Languages or about Deafness.

You can leave a comment on my blog or tweet me at : @E5ter

* A failed attempt at a universal spoken language is called Esperanto.

#Source: Wikipedia.org, text between []-brackets mine.

2 thoughts on “5 fun FAQ’s about Sign Language

  1. It is amazing how many assumptions I have made about sign language. I had no idea there was so much to it. I bet it is even easier to convey some things in sign language then spoken language. I want to learn it now.

  2. Hey Ester, goed om dit op deze manier aan mensen uit te leggen! Bij het kijken naar Mirjam Stolk’s video, met Paul de Leeuw, deed het geluid het niet. Daardoor zag ik haar dus toevallig ook sign-dancen zonder geluid. Nu is het wel zo dat ik de ‘signs’ niet echt begrijp, maar toen het geluid het wel weer deed, en ik de mooie muziek kon horen, ontroerde het mij dat door haar ‘vertaling’ dove mensen toch zoveel mogelijk meekrijgen van de gemeenschappelijke beleving van een mooi muziekstuk tijdens een optreden. Mooi werk doet zij ook.
    Liefs en tot gauw! mam

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