A generic language where speech is achieved by hand gestures rather than sound. There are many different languages, usually one per country, with many dialects within each country. Sign languages are usually developed organically, largely by the deaf community. There is, however, an International Sign Language that is similar to Esperanto in idea, and was specifically created.

While sign languages are used primarily by the deaf community, in fact they are useful for anybody, when speech cannot be relied upon (because of loud background noise or similar).

For further examples, see American Sign Language and British Sign Language.

Language that is articulated through movements of the hands and arms, and facial mimicry, as opposed to the vocal organs. Such languages appear almost exclusively among communites of deaf people, but sign languages of various degrees of complexity are also used in other communities where speaking is impossible or impractical, such as in certain monasteries and nunneries.

Contrary to popular belief, there isn't any one sign language -- sign languages are as diverse in grammar and vocabulary as spoken languages are. There have been some attempts to make an artificial sign language suitable for international communication (see Gestuno) but so far with little success.

It is often the case that the borders of spoken languages don't overlap with the borders of sign languages. For instance, the US and the UK both have English as their primary, spoken language, but deaf communities in the two countries use sign languages that are mutually unintelligible (Ameslan/ASL and BSL, respectively).


Templeton: the gestures of hearing people is not a language; they are paralinguistic. Although some of the lexemes in sign languages are borrowed from gestures and pantomime, most of them soon become opaque, that is, hearing people (or deaf people with another sign language) can't guess its meaning correctly. When they are told what the sign means, and asked to take a guess at its origin, they rarely guess correctly.
Even hearing people use sign language, almost more than the deaf. We use it every time we slam a door harder than we need to or when we throw up our hands in frustration after the other person has left the room, when we roll our eyes. In fact, it's a surprise that because we use our hands to communicate so often, we all don't have horribly chapped and sinewy digits. Our voices change as we age, growing deeper, maybe grainy. It's usually so subtle and over a course of years, whole lifetimes, that we barely notice the changes. Why not, then, wouldn't our hands age in much the same way?

I only know the alphabet in sign language for the deaf or hearing impaired, but it seems I have entire dictionaries on sign language for the hearing race, using words with my hands so often they are almost more worn out than if I spent the whole day typing away. And then I realize, rather late I'm sure, that IM and other chat programs must be a nice addition for deaf people to communicate with friends and family that are far away. I mean, if IM can hide some of our awkwardness and oddness, how much more for anyone that is made to feel out of place at times when they cannot speak words aloud? This idea is, to me, one of the purely positive things about IM and internet communication in general.

I wish I could sign. When I see groups of people talking with sign language, I am envious and left out. I watch their mouths form the words their hands are building and the smiles and other facial expressions that come so easily to them, those same responses us hearing people often hide behind our words, behind sign language of our own. So we are left to interpret signs in such a loose way that we lose more than we gain in understanding. There is so many of them that we take them for granted. We let go a slammed door or a gentle squeeze on the knee during a movie and seldom think too much of it. And yet, we still use them, we need them to say the things we can't find words for.

What does it mean when you play with my hair when we're sitting somewhere, when you fiddle with the frayed edge of my shorts? Does she know that when I come behind her and give her a neck massage that I'm telling her that I love her and that she's one of the best female friends I've ever had? When I come back to the office with a box of chocolates from Godiva and we sit in my office purring in candy bliss, do we ever become aware of how special that moment is, the moment in which we make contact with less than words, less than actions?

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