SIGN LANGUAGE – AN INTRODUCTION
Sign language, any means of communication through bodily movements, especially of
the hands and arms, used when spoken communication is impossible or not desirable.
The practice is probably older than speech. Sign language may be as coarsely expressed
as mere grimaces, shrugs, or pointing; or it may employ a delicately nuanced
combination of coded manual signals reinforced by facial expression and perhaps
augmented by words spelled out in a manual alphabet. Wherever vocal communication is
impossible, as between speakers of mutually unintelligible languages or when one or
more would-be communicators is deaf, sign language can be used to bridge the gap.
HISTORY & FORMATION OF ISL
Although discussion of sign languages and the lives of deaf people is extremely rare in
the history of South Asian literature, there are a few references to deaf people and
gestural communication in texts dating from antiquity. Symbolic hand gestures known
as mudras have been employed in religious contexts in Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism for many centuries, although these religious traditions have often excluded deaf people from participation in ritual or religious membership. In addition, classical Indian dance and theater often employs stylized hand
gestures with particular meanings.
It was long thought in many cultures that the deaf were ineducable, and the few teachers
willing to try were available only to the wealthy. In the mid-18th century, however, the
first educator of poor deaf children, Charles-Michel, abbé de l’Epée, developed a system
for spelling out French words with a manual alphabet and expressing whole concepts
with simple signs. From l’Epée’s system developed French Sign Language (FSL), still in
use in France today and the precursor of American Sign Language (ASL) and many other
national sign languages.
The Indian sign language was codified by use into an explicit vocabulary of gestures
representing or depicting objects, actions, and ideas, but it made no attempt to “spell out”
or otherwise represent words that could not be conveyed by gestures. Several forms of
sign language were developed to enable signers to spell out words and sounds, however.
Most of these are as complex and flexible as spoken languages.
HIGHLIGHTS OF ISL
Despite the common assumption that Indian Sign Language is the manual representation
of spoken English or Hindi, it is in fact unrelated to either language and has its own
grammar. Some distinct features of ISL that differ from other sign languages include:
1) Number Signs: The numbers from zero to nine are formed in ISL by holding up a hand
with the appropriate handshape for each number. From one to five the corresponding
number of extended fingers forms the numeral sign, whereas for zero and the numbers
from six to nine special hand shapes are used that derive from written numbers. Ten may
either be expressed by two 5-hands or by ‘1+0’.
2) Family Relationship: The signs for family relationship are preceded by the sign for
‘male/man’ and ‘female/woman’.E.g.: i) BROTHER: MAN + SIBLING ii) SISTER:
WOMAN + SIBLING
3) Sign families: Several signs belong to same family if they share one or more
parameters including hand shapes, place of articulation and movement.
E.g.: i) PASS and FAIL – The hand shape for the sign is same but they move in opposite
ii) MONEY, PAY and RICH – They have same hand shape but different place of
articulation and movement pattern.
iii)THINK, KNOW and UNDERSTAND – The place of articulation is head which is
same for all signs.
4) The ISL consists of various non-manual gestures including mouth pattern, mouth
gesture, facial expression, body posture, head position and eye gaze
5) There is no temporal inflection in ISL. The past, present and future is depicted by
using signs for before, then, and after.
6) The question words like WHAT, WHERE, WHICH, HOW etc. are placed at the end
of interrogative sentences.
i) English: Where is the bank? ISL : BANK WHERE
ii) English: Who is sick? ISL : SICK WHO
7) The use of space is a crucial feature of ISL.
Sentences are always predicate final, and all of the signs from the open lexical classes can
function as predicates. Ellipsis is extensive, and one-word sentences are common. There
is a strong preference for sentences with only one lexical argument. Constituent order
does not play any role in the marking of grammatical relations. These are coded
exclusively by spatial mechanisms (e.g., directional signs) or inferred from the context.
Temporal expressions usually come first in the sentence, and if there is a functional
particle, it always follows the predicate (e.g., YESTERDAY FATHER DIE
COMPLETIVE – (“My father died yesterday”).
Unlike American Sign Language (ASL) and sign languages of European countries, ISL is
in rudimentary stage of its development. The Deaf communities of India are still
struggling for ISL to gain the status of sign language as a minority language. Though sign
language is used by many deaf people in India, it is not used officially in schools for
teaching purposes.In 2005, India the National Curricular Framework (NCF) gave some
degree of legitimacy to sign language education, by hinting that sign languages may
qualify as an optional third language choice for hearing students. NCERT in March 2006
launched a class III text includes a chapter on sign language, emphasizing the fact that it
is a language like any other and is “yet another mode of communication”. The aim was to
create healthy attitudes towards the differently abled.