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The emerging sign language of Guinea-Bissau (LGG)

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I am Mariana (sign name), my name M-A-R-I-A-N-A  M-A-R-T-I-N-S.

I was born in Portugal and now I am at the University in Leiden, in the Netherlands, studying for my PhD.

The topic is about a West-African country, called G-U-I-N-E-A - B-I-S-S-A-UThis is the sign name for Guinea-Bissau. Guinea-Bissau has an emerging sign language since 2004. In my research of this sign language I focus on:

  1. how are gestures incorporated,
  2. how is syntax structured, how does the verb V-E-R-B move in space and how are human arguments set up in space and
  3. what is the word order in the sentence.


The possibility to observe at this very moment the emergence of a particular sign language is a fundamental asset to the understanding of language evolution in general. Thus, the study of Guinea-Bissau Sign Language (Língua Gestual Guineense – LGG) opens a unique window to the formation of complex grammatical structures as they manifest at a premature stage of its development.

This research will generate new insights into the verbal morphosyntax of an emerging sign language, still in its first generation of signers, by looking at the correlation between form and function. By zooming in on the verbal morphosyntax of LGG, this study will enable a systematic comparison to hallmark researches, as done on Nicaraguan Sign Language and on village sign languages, especially those located in West Africa.

In this way we expect to shed light on the influence of community size and of cultural surroundings on emerging sign language structure.

State of the art

While oral languages are old and/or descend from older ones, sign languages are often very young and may spontaneously emerge, without any linguistic model, whenever the necessary conditions are met, i.e. a number of deaf people meeting on a regular basis. The fact that they may be emerging at this very moment and that their iconic nature favors an immediate relation between form and function will enable us to witness the unfolding of linguistic structure. New sign languages typically arise under two types of social conditions: in small communities, usually villages, with a high incidence of hereditary deafness, and in school contexts where a majority of deaf children are brought together under pidgin-like interactions. For the village sign languages, the evolution of their grammatical structures seems to happen at a slower pace. This is explained primarily by the small number of deaf signers in these communities (Sandler 2014). The systematic study on Nicaraguan Sign Language, that started out around 1977 (Kegl, Senghas and Coppola 1999), lead the way on emerging sign languages research. After this most in-depth studies have focused on village sign languages, notably the case of Al Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (Sandler 2005).

In our work with deaf communities in African Lusophone countries, we came across a new sign language that started emerging only in 2004 at the deaf school of Guinea-Bissau (Martins and Morgado 2008, 2017).

The formation of a language in loco and in media res in the hands of deaf communities is an important asset to the understanding of language evolution. Thus, the study of Guinea-Bissau’s case opens a unique window to the emergence of complex grammatical structures as they manifest at a premature stage of its development. When unfolding step-by-step stages in an emerging grammar, the fundamental linguistic elements and the way they anchor each other become more visible. Verbal morphosyntax appears then as a permeate layer that brings to light the correlation between form and function.

In our study of the new sign language in Guinea-Bissau, still in its first generation of signers, we will trace the emergence of selected features of verbal morphosyntax, such as verb agreement and word order. This study will generate new insights into the verbal morphosyntax of a school sign language, enabling a systematic comparison with Nicaraguan Sign Language on the one hand, and village sign languages on the other. This will allow us to evaluate which similarities and differences can potentially be attributed to the school or village context respectively.

Research on an old West African village sign language in Ghana shows that features of the verbal morphosyntax of the spoken language may be transferred to a sign language, probably through co-speech gesture (Nyst 2007). Thus, in our study, we will take into account the gestures of hearing non-signers as well. This will enable us to evaluate to what extent specific features of verbal morphosyntax can be attributed to the specific cultural and linguistic environment of the emerging sign language.


The main goal of this study will be to unravel grammatical organization shaped by the hands and minds of the first generation of deaf signers in Guinea-Bissau. For that purpose, we begin by posing a central question: “What degree of linguistic complexity has been achieved in the few years of interaction amongst the first generation of signers and how did it develop?”. To enable comparison with the hallmark studies on the emerging Nicaraguan Sign Language (Senghas et al. 2015, Flaherty 2014), we will target the grammaticalization of verbal morphosyntax.

Finally, to understand if cultural surroundings impact on the emerging structure of sign predicates, we will also collect gestures performed by hearing non-signers.

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