Contact Sign

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.

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 mouthing 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 strongly sign-language grammar to signing with a strongly 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 Deaf native signers often shows some evidence of language contact. Deaf people in the USA may use a more English-like signing style in a more formal setting, or if unfamiliar with the interlocutor. [cite book | last =Lucas | first =Ceil | coauthors = Clayton Valli | year = 1989 | chapter = Language Contact in the American Deaf Community | title = The Sociolinguistics of the Deaf Community | editor = Ceil Lucas, ed. | pages = 11–40 | location = San Diego | publisher = Academic Press | isbn = 9780124580459 | oclc = 18781573 ]

Linguistic features of language contact

Sign language researchers Ceil Lucas and Clayton Valli note several differences between the language contact arising between two sign languages, and the contact phenomena that arise between a signed and a spoken language. [cite book | last = Lucas | first = Ceil | coauthors = Clayton Valli | year = 1992 | title = Language contact in the American deaf community | location = San Diego | publisher = Academic Press | isbn = 9780124580404 | oclc = 25316891 ] [cite journal | first = Ceil | last = Lucas | title = Language contact phenomena in deaf communities | journal = Estudios de Sociolingüística | format = PDF | language = English | url = | accessdate = 2007-10-24 | volume = 1 | issue = 1 | pages = 145–152 | issn = | id = OCLC|48513134 ] When two sign languages meet, the expected contact phenomena occur — 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 borrowed — in this case, from the spoken language. This is known as metatypy. Malcolm Ross writes:

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 [cite journal | last = Woodward | first = James | year = 1973 | title = Some Characteristics of Pidgin Sign English | journal = Sign Language Studies | volume = 2 | issue = 3 | pages = 39–46 | issn = 0302-1475 | id = OCLC|1779938 ] (PSE, sometimes "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 (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. [cite journal | last = Bishop | first = Michele | title = Orange Eyes: Bimodal Bilingualism in Hearing Adults from Deaf Families | journal = Sign Language Studies | volume = 5 | issue = 2 | date = Winter 2005 | pages = pp. 188–230 | issn = 0302-1475 | id = OCLC|92476830 | doi = 10.1353/sls.2005.0001 ]

ee also

*Bimodal Bilingualism (in the American Deaf Community)
*Manually Coded English


Further reading


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