Contact sign

A contact sign language, or contact sign, is a variety or style of language that arises from contact between a deaf sign language and a spoken language (or the written or manually coded form of the spoken language). Contact languages also arise between different sign languages, although the term pidgin rather than contact sign is used to describe such phenomena.

Contact sign has been characterized as "a sign language that has elements of both [a] natural sign language and the surrounding spoken language".[1]


Language contact

Language contact is extremely common in most deaf communities, which are almost always located within a dominant spoken language ('hearing') culture. Deaf people are exposed to the spoken language that surrounds them, if only in visual forms like lip reading or writing, from early childhood. Hearing parents and teachers of deaf children, if they sign at all, are usually second language learners and their signing style will exhibit features of interference from the spoken language. A mixing of languages and modes may also occur when interpreting between a spoken and a signed language.

While deaf sign languages are distinct from spoken languages, with a different vocabulary and grammar, a boundary between the two is often hard to draw. A language 'continuum' is often described between signing with a strong sign-language grammar to signing with a strong spoken-language grammar, the middle-regions of which are often described as contact sign (or Pidgin Sign). In a conversation between a native signer and a second-language learner, both conversation partners may be signing at different ends of the spectrum. A blend that is often seen is vocabulary from the sign language signed in the word order of the spoken language, with a simplified or reduced grammar typical of contact languages.

However, even a dialog between two native deaf signers often shows some evidence of language contact. Deaf people in the United States may use a more English-like signing style in a more formal setting, or if unfamiliar with the interlocutor.[2]

Linguistic features of language contact

Sign language researchers Ceil Lucas and Clayton Valli have noted several differences between the language contact arising between two sign languages, and the contact phenomena that arise between a signed and a spoken language.[3][4] When two sign languages meet, the expected contact phenomena occurs —lexical borrowing, foreign "accent," interference, code switching, pidgins, creoles, and mixed systems. However, between a sign language and a spoken language, while lexical borrowing and code switching also occur, the interface between the spoken and signed modes produces unique phenomena: fingerspelling (see below), fingerspelling/sign combination, initalisation, CODA talk (see below), TTY conversation, mouthing, and contact signing.

Long-term contact with spoken languages has generated a large influence on the vocabulary and grammar of sign languages. Loan translations are common, such as the American Sign Language signs BOY and FRIEND, forming a compound meaning "boyfriend", or the Auslan partial-calque DON'T MIND, which involves the sign for the noun MIND combined with an upturned palm, which is a typical Auslan negation. At what point a loan-translation becomes fully acceptable and considered as 'native' (rather than Contact Signing) is a matter over which native signers will differ in opinion. This process appears to be very common in those sign languages that have been best documented, such as American Sign Language, British Sign Language, and Auslan. In these cases, signers are increasingly bilingual in both a sign and a "spoken" language (or visual forms of it) as the deaf signing community's literacy levels increase. In such bilingual communities, loan translations are common enough that deeper grammatical structures may also be borrowed — in this case, from the spoken language. This is known as metatypy. Malcolm Ross writes:

Usually, the language undergoing metatypy (the modified language) is emblematic of its speakers’ identity, whilst the language which provides the metatypic model is an inter-community language. Speakers of the modified language form a sufficiently tightknit community to be well aware of their separate identity and of their language as a marker of that identity, but some bilingual speakers, at least, use the inter-community language so extensively that they are more at home in it than in the emblematic language of the community.[5]

Some populations with a high proportion of deaf people have developed sign languages that are used by both hearing and deaf people in the community, such as Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, Yucatec Maya Sign Language, Adamorobe Sign Language and Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. It is unclear what kind of language contact phenomena, if any, occur in such environments.


One of the most striking contact sign phenomena is fingerspelling, in which a writing system is represented with manual signs. In those sign languages where such a system exists, the manual alphabet is structurally quite different from the more 'native' grammatical forms, which are often spatial, visually motivated, and multilayered. Manual alphabets facilitate the input of new terms such as technical vocabulary from the dominant spoken language of the region, and allow a transliteration of phrases, names, and places. They may also be used for function words such as 'at', 'so' or 'but'.

Pidgin Sign English

The phrase Pidgin Sign English[6] (PSE, sometimes also 'Pidgin Signed English') is often used to describe the different contact languages that arise between the English language and either British Sign Language, New Zealand Sign Language, Auslan or American Sign Language, but the term is increasingly falling out of favor.

CODA talk

Contact phenomena have been observed in the reverse direction, from a sign language to a spoken language. Hearing adults who grew up in deaf signing households as children of deaf adults (CODAs) sometimes communicate with each other in spoken and written English while knowingly using ASL loan translations and underlying grammatical forms.[7]

See also


  1. ^ Ricento, Thomas. An Introduction to Language Policy: Theory and Method: Volume 1: Language and Social Change, Wiley-Blackwell, 2006, ISBN 1405114983, ISBN 9781405114981.
  2. ^ Lucas, Ceil; Clayton Valli (1989). "Language Contact in the American Deaf Community". In Ceil Lucas, ed.. The Sociolinguistics of the Deaf Community. San Diego: Academic Press. pp. 11–40. ISBN 9780124580459. OCLC 18781573. 
  3. ^ Lucas, Ceil; Clayton Valli (1992). Language contact in the American deaf community. San Diego: Academic Press. ISBN 9780124580404. OCLC 25316891. 
  4. ^ Lucas, Ceil. "Language contact phenomena in deaf communities" (PDF). Estudios de Sociolingüística 1 (1): 145–152. OCLC 48513134. Retrieved 2007-10-24. 
  5. ^ Ross, Malcolm D. (1997). "Social networks and kinds of speech-community event". In R. Blench; Matthew Spriggs, eds.. Archaeology and language 1: Theoretical and methodological orientations. London: Routledge. pp. 209–261. ISBN 9780415117609. OCLC 35673530. 
  6. ^ Woodward, James (1973). "Some Characteristics of Pidgin Sign English". Sign Language Studies 2 (3): 39–46. ISSN 0302-1475. OCLC 1779938. 
  7. ^ Bishop, Michele; Hicks, Sherry (Winter 2005). "Orange Eyes: Bimodal Bilingualism in Hearing Adults from Deaf Families". Sign Language Studies 5 (2): pp. 188–230. doi:10.1353/sls.2005.0001. OCLC 92476830. 

Further reading

  • Ann, Jean (1998). "Contact between a sign language and a written language: Character signs in Taiwan Sign Language". In Ceil Lucas, ed.. Pinky Extension and Eye Gaze: Language Use in Deaf Communities. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. ISBN 9781563680700. OCLC 40137540. 
  • Reilly, Judy S.; Marina L. McIntire (1980). "ASL and Pidgin Sign English: What's the difference?". Sign Language Studies 9 (27): 151–192. ISSN 0302-1475. OCLC 1779938. 
  • Cokely, Dennis Richard (Spring 1983). "When is a Pidgin not a Pidgin? An alternate analysis of the ASL-English contact situation". Sign Language Studies 12 (38): 1–24. ISSN 0302-1475. OCLC 92819277. 
  • Supalla, T.; R. Webb (1995). "The grammar of international sign: A new look at pidgin languages". In Karen Emmorey, Judy S. Reilly, eds.. Language, gesture and space. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 333–352. ISBN 9780805813784. OCLC 31434174. 
  • Luetke-Stahlman, Barbara (1993). "Three PSE studies: Implications for educators". In Mary Pat Moeller, ed.. Proceedings: Issues in Language and Deafness. Omaha, Nebraska: Boys Town National Research Hospital. 

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