Talking with Your Hands: On Sign Language

If humans ever communicate with alien races, it will probably be through a kind of sign language, not a spoken language.

Human communication, in a physical sense, is a very particular, very specialized ability. Consider how diverse are the number of sounds we can produce. English has about 24 consonant sounds (depending on dialect) and quite a few vowels to boot, depending on whether your dialect is rhotic or non-rhotic (i.e. do you pronounce the r-sound in words like “fire”, “bare”, etc., or do they just change the vowel?). When I speak English, I use about 14 or 15 different vowel sounds, which is actually very few compared to other English speakers around the world. Now compare this to the Khoisan languages of southern Africa, which have the largest phonemic inventories among all the world’s languages. Some are recorded as having well over one hundred different sounds in all, yet lacking sounds which are very familiar to English speakers, such as the th-sounds, or v.

Consider also the ability of the ear and the mind to analyze these sounds, and understand them as the elements of ideas. Language is an extremely sophisticated ability which we have developed for use among ourselves, not with other species.

One thing which I rarely get out of anything but the hardest science fiction is aliens which are very different from us. Intelligent life is always humanoid. Why should other intelligent life depend on speech for communication? Bees communicate through dance. Crickets “chirp”, but this is an act of stridulation, not vocalization.

Even if we encountered aliens which communicate in something resembling speech, I doubt we could imitate it. Their vocal apparatus, whatever form that might take, would be too different from ours, as ours from theirs. However, I think it safe to imagine that other intelligent life would be able to move around at will, and that it would be feasible as a means of communication. But maybe I’m not much less narrow-minded than the “soft” sci-fi writers I’ve denounced.

I’ve been fascinated with sign language since I started reading about it in Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct. Before I had even finished, I started learning American Sign Language online, although two languages at once is a lot to take in, and I eventually decided to focus on Chinese, at least for now. By the way, if you’re interested in learning ASL, I strongly recommend

I can recall one day while picking up some street food in China with my non-Chinese friends, we wound up at a vendor where the people working there were deaf. Because they couldn’t understand what people said to them, they put a menu on the cart, and wrote a note saying to point to what you wanted on the menu. I remember wondering aloud about Chinese Sign Language, but one of my friends laughed at me, saying why would they have a different sign language from everybody else? I suppose the implication was that all deaf people need to be taught sign language, and there’s no reason for teachers to teach different things.

Pinker touches on this in his discussion of Nicaraguan Sign Language. Until the 70s, there were no education opportunities for the deaf of Nicaragua. However, in the late 70s and early 80s, schools for the deaf opened in Nicaragua for the first time, bringing together deaf children who previously only used home signs – systems for communication invented in individual households with deaf people. As with early deaf schools in Europe and the United States, it focused on integrating the deaf into the greater community by teaching them to communicate effectively in the local language. However, success was limited. Rather than learning Spanish, the Nicaraguan students began signing to each other, spontaneously inventing their own language.

Also of note is something I found out later: the first school for the deaf in China was actually opened by American missionaries, but they taught a sign language distinct from ASL. Here’s another fun fact: there are well over a hundred different sign languages in the world today. Ethnologue records 137.

There’s also a lot of confusion about what goes on in a sign language. I think the main misconception is that people just have signs for whatever words people use in the spoken language, which are based on pantomime. In fact, ASL, at least, works quite differently from English (although there are other sign languages, such as Signed English, which are very different from ASL and are designed to mimic English). I believe I mentioned this briefly in my last video. Also, while some signs have a clear meaning, many seem arbitrary, perhaps having changed after many years of use.

This is my favorite thing about ASL, based on what I’ve learned so far: the eyebrows carry grammatical information. In order to change a question to a polar question, the eyebrows are raised, and when signing interrogative words (for a non-polar question), the eyebrows are lowered. Here’s an example of how the eyebrows can change the meaning of signs. The sign for YOU is pointing at the person you’re talking to (side note: glosses in ASL are typically written in all caps). The sign for OLD is stroking your (perhaps non-existent) beard below your chin, grasping it in the fist and moving from the chin down. If I sign YOU OLD, its meaning is “you are old.” If I sign it with raised eyebrows, I’m asking, “are you old?” And if I lower my eyebrows as I sign OLD, I’m asking “how old are you?”

Anyway, I don’t want to drag this post out, because I don’t have much to say about the game today, just wanted to talk about something that interests me. I’ll leave you all with a Youtube video that popped up on /r/linguistics a little while back, showing babbling in ASL:

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Creator of Sethian. My personal email is grantkuning at gmail. Kickstarter: Facebook: Twitter:

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