Sign languages (was: Re: additions to ISO 639 and the IANA language subtag registry)

Peter Constable petercon at
Mon Feb 27 00:52:04 CET 2006

> From: ietf-languages-bounces at [mailto:ietf-languages-
> bounces at] On Behalf Of Michael Everson

> No. Signed English using ISL or BSL or ASL is essentially a special
> form of ISL or BSL or ASL. It isn't really English.

This is critical. What is the language identity? Is it at its core English or is it something else? If it's best seen as a variant of ASL / BSL / etc, then we should treat it as such; it it's best seen as a pidgin of English and ASL / BSL / etc. then it is a distinct language, related to but different from both.

> Fluent speakers
> of ISL when confronted with Signed English using ISL or ASL can
> understand it.

It's not clear whether this is a sufficient criterion. If a typical English speaker were to see English transcribed or transliterated into Georgian script, they wouldn't understand it. Mind you, if it was read aloud, they'd understand it -- the phonology is the same; but in the Signed English cases the phonological representation itself is different.

> >Blech! So you want to have "sgn-GH" for 'Ghanian SL' and something like
> >"sgn-GH-admrb" for 'Adoromobe SL', even though the two are probably
> >quite distinct, if even related at all. That will work beautifully
> >(NOT!) with left-prefix matching algorithms.
> Such algorithms are not the reason we have language-tags, I am sure.

The merits of potential language tags do not exist independent of such algorithms. Just as proposed character encoding cannot be evaluated independent of text processing issues such as rendering and sorting.

> >If we just use treat signed languages like any other normal language
> using
> >tags like "ads", or if we agree on a consistent template using
> >alpha-3 extlang subtags e.g. "sgn-ads", then there's nothing to be
> >worked out as far as the tagging scheme is concerned; the only open
> >issue is identifying what are all the distinct signed languages out
> >there.
> They aren't just like any other normal language. They're different,
> and they interact with spoken languages in unique ways, and this
> needs working out with the Deaf community.

I'm inclined to believe that, linguistically, signed languages aren't all that different from oral languages. They present their own challenges wrt technology, but as far as *identification* is concerned, I don't believe the issues are likely to be that different.

Peter Constable

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