Sign Language - An International Handbook

2012 Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter


A historical perspective on sign language linguistics

Research in the past 50 years has proven beyond a doubt that sign languages are complete and independent natural languages with complex grammatical systems that are fully comparable to the grammatical systems of spoken languages. In other words, natural languages exist in two different modalities, the visual-manual modality of sign languages and the auditory-oral modality of spoken languages.
In the history of linguistic research on sign languages, roughly three periods can be distinguished. In the first of these, researchers focused on the underlying identity between spoken and signed languages. Determined to prove the linguistic status of sign languages against widely held prejudices and misconceptions that communication between the deaf was based on pantomime and gesture, early sign linguists de-emphasised the role of iconicity in sign language. The sign language most investigated in this period was ASL. As a consequence, there was little typological research.
In the modern area starting in the 1980s, researchers turned for the first time to the issue of modality and investigated similarities and differences between signed and spoken languages. In this period, researchers were interested in the influence of modality on linguistic structure, in modality-specific properties of signed and spoken languages, and in modality-independent linguistic universals as well as psycho- and neurolinguistic processes and representations. Starting from the observation that sign languages seem to be typologically more homogeneous than spoken languages, many grammatical properties of sign languages were related to specific properties of the visual-manual modality. In both the early and modern periods, sign language research mainly focused on the comparison of sign languages and spoken languages. Cross-linguistic studies on sign languages have been rare. However, the hypothesis that sign languages are typologically more similar than spoken languages needed to be taken with caution until more (unrelated) sign languages were investigated.
Only once non-Western sign languages began to be studied, did it become clear that sign languages show more variation than originally predicted. This post-modern period, which approached sign language typology more seriously, started in the late 1990s. Today, we can observe an increasing interest in comparative and experimental studies on sign languages at all linguistic levels, and of less studied (Western and non-Western) sign languages. In this context, researchers have also developed new methodological and technological tools for the elicitation, collection, and documentation of sign language data. In the long term, sign language typology studies will make an important contribution to a better understanding of the nature of human language. Now that sign language linguistics has been established as a research field in its own right, it is appropriate to compile a handbook with contributions that go beyond the distinct research traditions sketched above and that incorporate and summarise ideas from all three traditions. All relevant linguistic areas will benefit from such an approach; these areas will be sketched in the next section.