Sign languages

John Cowan cowan at
Tue Feb 21 19:04:50 CET 2006

Kent Karlsson scripsit:

> I have no idea at all what "signed spoken language" is supposed to be.
> Do you mean "signed written language" (NOT written sign language,
> that is something else, like Sutton sign writing), i.e. the word(s)
> spelled out using letter signs?

No.  A signed spoken language (this term is ad hoc, but the best I can
come up with) is a hybrid between a spoken language and a true signed
language.  Signed Exact (American) English, for example, has a sign
for every word of American English, and uses them in English syntax.
Thus a sentence such as "I have two sisters" is signed using four signs,
"I-sign Have-sign Two-sign Sisters-sign".

This is entirely distinct from American Sign Language, which is an
entirely separate language quite unrelated to English (its closest
relatives are French Sign Language and Martha's Vineyard Sign Language).
No such one-to one translation from the signs of ASL to English is

In practice, it is not uncommon for signed conversations, especially
those including speakers who are hearing, to be complex mixtures of sign
language and signed spoken language.  But this is true in most cases
where speakers are more or less bilingual.

The difficulty is that a signed spoken language involves two choices: the
spoken language being mimicked and the sign language from which most or
all of the signs are drawn.  Thus one may sign English using signs drawn
from American, British, or Irish Sign Languages (all quite unrelated),
or in principle from any other sign language.  This is not a situation
which the basic RFC 3066bis framework is designed to handle well.
I suspect that eventually an extension will be needed.

> As far as I understand, sign language (of some variety) uses "word" signs
> (not necessarily directly corresponding to words in any particular spoken/
> written language) for common "words"/concepts, TOGETHER with spelling
> out in signed letters for names and not so common words. Spelling out
> everything using signed letters would be painfully slow.

Quite so.  The principal difference between signed English and any
of the true sign languages used in Anglophonia, however, is syntax.
For example, the sentence above would be expressed in ASL using three
signs: "Two-sign Sister-sign I-sign", in that order.

It was dreary and wearisome.  Cold clammy winter still held way in this
forsaken country.  The only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark
greasy surfaces of the sullen waters.  Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed
up in the mists like ragged shadows of long-forgotten summers.
        --"The Passage of the Marshes"

More information about the Ietf-languages mailing list