Universiteit Leiden

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Studying the historical roots of sign languages – methodological issues

Friday 19 April 2024
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


European Sign Languages are considered young; their development is usually associated with the establishment of institutionalised deaf education in the late 18th and 19th centuries. However, the diachronic linguistics of sign languages is a neglected discipline. Due to their modality, sign languages do not have a written form; we can only refer to printed or manuscript paper materials. The first step is to complete a list of all usable texts and collect and analyse them. Historical relationships among sign languages are based on language contact and extralinguistic connections such as historical, geographical, and educational ones (especially historical connections among deaf schools and educators).

The roots of many European Sign Languages are connected with Old French Sign Language, which is the most explored based on relatively extensive historical sources and dictionaries. Although the source base for other sign languages is less broad, texts can be found using a sign language archaeology approach, as we will show with the example of Czech Sign Language. These are primarily texts aimed at deaf education, including information on the use and attitudes towards sign languages, motivation, written descriptions, or pictures of signs. Subsequently, signs can be cross-linguistically compared, and lexicostatistical methods can be used to infer the possible relatedness of sign languages, classify them into families, and answer the question of to what extent sign language was genuinely universal in continental Europe, as it was considered at the time. However, in diachronic comparison, we are faced with a lack of relevant sources, incomplete records, and iconicity of signs.

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