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Sign is not symbol (was Re: Symbols/Universal sign)

From: Chris Kreussling <CHRIS.KREUSSLING@ny.frb.org>
Date: Thu, 24 Sep 1998 12:03:30 -0400
To: w3c-wai-ig@w3.org
Message-id: <s60a35c8.074@ny.frb.org>
>>> <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org> 09/24 10:40 AM  (LK) >>>

In a message dated 9/24/98 8:14:01 AM, [Jess Chaiken] wrote:

<<<There is no such thing as universal sign language. Each community's sign
language is a naturally formed language with it's own phonology,
morphology, and syntax. If a Deaf American and a Deaf German meet on the
street, they *won't* understand each other.>>

(LK) ... I thought basic signs such as "stop", "go", "me", 
"eat", numbers etc were the same signs in all languages ...

Hopefully without going too far afield from accessibility concerns, I want to support Jess' point above. Sign language is neither more universal nor accessible than verbal/spoken/written languages. When I first studied ASL (American Sign Language), I was excited about the possibility of ASL as a "universal language." No such thing, in sign or verbal languages. I was disappointed, but ASL is such a beautiful and rich language it made up for it [g]. Even the most "basic" hand shapes will not be globally acceptable, let alone accessible. To quote William Horton: Almost all configurations of the human hand are obscene or rude gestures somewhere in the world.

The academic recognition of ASL and other sign languages as independent *languages*, not just systems of symbols and miming, has occurred only in the past two decades or so. There are "slips of the hand" in sign analogous to "slips of the tongue" in spoken languages. Studies of native ASL speakers who've suffered brain trauma due to stroke or other reasons show that the same areas of the brain used to support verbal languages are involved in sign languages.

[Aside: I believe similarities among sign languages across countries are more of a historical artifact, given the relatively recent (two centuries or so) efforts at sign language education (think LeClerc and colleagues). With increased exposure, education and use, I would expect sign languages to continue to evolve within communities, and diverge among different communities, just as other languages do.]

Chris Kreussling
The views expressed are those of the 
author and do not necessarily reflect the 
position of the Federal Reserve Bank of 
New York or the Federal Reserve System.

>>> (LK) ... I am more familiar with Word Order Signed English, [ASL] 
is a language in it's own ... But, Jess, isn't *Word-Order-Signed-English* more transferable?  

The problem with Word-Order-Signed-English (or Manually-Coded English, MCE) is that it *is* English. It's a transcription of English into another form, just like closed captioning on TV. It requires translation to another language if the reader/viewer doesn't know English.

It would be an interesting experiment to use graphic images of Signs for
navigation etc on a website except some would have to be animated gifs.
("Home" is a 2 motion sign) or require more than one image to represent each
image. (?)
I have seen animated gifs finger-spelling  words on websites,  a bit too much
bytes. But surely using these would alienate those who do not read Sign or
have trouble processing Signing.

Animated GIFs, movies or other media on the Web which show sign language will need to identify the source language, for example: <IMG SRC="homesign.gif" ALT="Home" LANG="sign-asl">. The current HTML spec doesn't support this; future specs must. (For example: there's no "language code" for sign language; all HTML language aspects presume text or spoken language.) The technology and infrastructure for sign language communication across space and time continue to improve and become more available. Web standards and tools should support and facilitate these developments.
Received on Thursday, 24 September 1998 12:15:16 UTC

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