Esperanto? Why not sign language as a universal language?

With the obvious exceptions of conditions like Parkinson’s, paralysis and double hand amputation, I’ve been trying to figure out why American sign language isn’t promoted as a legitimate universal language.

Let me get a few things out of the way right off the bat. First, I say American sign language because as far as I know it’s the most comprehensive of any signing. It’s not because of some nationalistic pride. If there are other forms of sign that are as well developed, I’d like to learn of them. Second, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph this isn’t a perfect setup. There are millions world wide that can’t physically sign. However, there are millions that are deaf and/or mute making spoken language impossible. Granted, deaf persons can learn to read lips, but what if the person is also blind?

Finally, if you’re deaf, mute and blind none of these options (sign, speech and lip-reading) will apply. Again, my idea isn’t a perfect argument.

Given all that, I just can’t figure out why sign isn’t promoted as a universal language.

Here are some arguments for that thinking.

Languages have very unique speech patterns, pronunciation, sounds and structure. In sign you have one movement or hand position to relay a word, phrase, idea or concept. For instance, it is said the Eskimos have dozens of different words for snow. Each describes whether it’s light, heavy, wet, dry, blowing, drifting, etc. And that’s just one language. (Or family of languages, not clear on that.) Think of all th other languages in the world. Each has a different word for snow and additional adjectives to describe the kind of snow.

With sign, you can not only say snow, but describe it as well. In a way that everyone will know without translation.

In addition, the obstacles of learning new sounds is eliminated. Think of the “L” sound in some Asian languages. It can be learned, obviously, but it can be difficult to do so when learning to say these sounds after, say, 30 years of never saying it. I forget the name of the language in Africa that uses tongue clicks in speech and just can’t imagine ever learning how to do it.

With sign, that is eliminated. There is no mispronunciation. The hand gesture is absolute and clearly recognized as exactly what the signer intended to convey. To offer a crass example, think of giving someone “The Bird”. It’s not universal, yet, but it’s a pretty good bet that a lot of people from any culture will know what it means. Sure, a lot of languages have a direct equivalent to “Fuck you”, but many more have phrases that equate to “You are a flea-bitten dog” or “Your parents were never married”. In Western culture the latter is equivalent to calling someone a bastard, kinda tame compared to a hearty Fuck You. But in other cultures (namley Islamic I think) being called a bastard is tantamount to raping your mother. Extending the middle finger rolls all those ideas/emotions into one easily recognizable gesture that makes clear what you want to express to someone.

Now, I don’t offer sign as a universal language so we can easily insult each other. It’s just the easiest, most basic way I can describe how well sign could work as a language that can be learned by the vast majority of the world.

Instead of an American learning French, German, Spanish and Japanese, or a Russian learning Chinese (whatever flavor you want), Portugese and Arabic, there is one language that requires only rote learning of the motions and very basic sentence structure. No more learing how to pronounce a letter that has “decoration”. (Tildes, the slash through a Norwegian O, the stylized B in German to indicate the double “S” sound, etc.)

The other problem I can see is that sign is visual. But that can be offset by the ever increasing spread of video communication through the internet. Instead of an e-mail or hand written letter, you would use video capture to record your signing to send to your audience.

Also, and here’s the biggest obstacle IMO. There is a greatly lessened use of inflection and tone in sign. There is lessened emotion than in speech. But sign has more of both than the written word, and the written word is still pretty powerful. I’m not looking at this from the standpoint of signing to your spouse that you love them. This is more for business or low level diplomacy. Granted, if you’re negotiating a multi-billion dollar business merger or attempting to stave off a war, you want the personal interaction of talking to someone. But that’s not the norm of international communication. Just think how much easier it would be to use a gesture to locate a hospital, barber, grocery store, etc in a foreign land.

So where are the flaws and holes in my argument that sign should be persued as a universal language? I’ve mentioned the ones I can think of, but none seem serious enough to halt it.

What are your thoughts?

Because the native speaking (signing) population is tiny. And, we already have a near universal language: English.

But keep in mind that in every language there are both major and minor differences in sentence structure, sounds, etc. I think English may eventually become a universal language, but with the rise of China ever increasing and the similarities to Japanese in the basic concept of language (symbols versus letters), there is a very real possibility that an Asian language will overtake English.

For instance, English is a Germanic language, and tied into the Romance languages of Spanish, French, Italian and Portugese. So they’re all of the same language family. The same for Korean, Japanese and all varients of Chinese. Given the rise and potential explosion of greater Asia as a political and economic world player, in addition to the sheer numbers in population, Western languages may become secondary to a language structure that is fundamentally different.

I’m thinking along the lines of sign being taught to all people in addition to their native tongue. (I’m not hoping that the myriad of different languages be dropped.)

Wouldn’t it be easier for a person to learn their native tongue plus sign instead of learning, say, English, French, Russian and Vietnamese? You know two languages and that’s all most would need.

Sign language is a lot more fragmented than I previously realised. After I met someone who can sign, I began to learn how many different varieties of sign language there are. There’s American Sign Language, used also in English-speaking Canada; it’s descended from French Sign Language. There’s Quebec Sign Language. British Sign Language is something else. There are many other sign languages.

Wikipedia on sign language:

Wikipedia on:
American Sign Language
French Sign Language
Quebec Sign Language
British Sign Language
Mexican Sign Language

It’s more complex that I thought.

Because it is very difficult to sign over the phone or radio.

Right, that’s probably a hefty chunk of the reason why it wouldn’t be practical to do it.

One thing you also have to remember is that sign languages are natural languages, not a constructed one like Esperanto. Everything that makes natural languages difficult to learn is true of sign.

Well, there is a kind of Sign Language Esperanto: Gestuno.

In The Language Instinct*, Pinker talks a little bit about universal languages and sign languages. Duffer, I think you’re vastly oversimplifying ASL: as I understand it, it’s a tremendously complex language, with great subtlety of meaning that’s communicated by the nuance of a gesture. Folks who learn ASL as adults have great difficulty developing the same fluency that a child possesses, if the child grows up speaking ASL. The language is rich in metaphor and abstract symbolism: it’s not a game of charades in which anyone unschooled in the language will understand such sentences as, “Where’s the bathroom?” or “I’d like a cup of coffee, with cream and sugar,” or even, “I! WOULD! LIKE! A! CUP! OF! COFFEE! YOU! DAMN! FOREIGNER!”

In short, my understanding is that ASL is no more suitable than anything else as a universal language, and indeed considerably less suitable, inasmuch as it can’t be used over telephones or the Internet, is spoken by very few people, and requires directed visual attention instead of indirect auditory attention (imagine ASL directions for passengers at an airport–how would this work?)


That’s why I mentioned e-mails and letters. Same thing really. I didn’t realize there were so many different ways to sign a word. (Thanks Sunspace).

Well, one could publish the signs this way.

Sure, but their sign for “Shores Deaf Church” is saying, “Fo shizzle, bitch!” to me. I don’t think it’s quite a universal language.


Where is the evidence that “speech patterns”, “pronunciation” and “sounds” are more difficult and involve greater subtlety than a “movement” or “hand position” in sign language? And as for “structure”, I was under the impression that signed languages and spoken languages are equally complex.

This is a myth.

I would imagine that signed languages also each have a different word for snow and additional adjectives to describe it. Obviously if one particular signed language were adopted for international use then there would be one standard sign for snow, but the same would be true if a spoken langauge were adopted.

You can describe snow in spoken languages, too. And I don’t understand how “everyone will know without translation” in the case of signed languages. Signed languages have to make use of arbitrary symbols just like spoken languages do.

Obviously there is no “mispronunciation”, but what is your evidence that it is impossible to sign something incorrectly? And that signs are never misunderstood when not executed clearly and correctly?

I think that scaling up signs like “The Bird” to constitute a comprehensive system for the expression of human thoughts would do away with this simplicity.

Rote learning of motions may be somewhat easier than wrote learning of spoken words, but “very basic sentence structure”? I was under the impression that sign-language grammar is equally as complex as spoken-language grammar. And to the extent that it could be simplified for international communication, I think you could do the same to a spoken language.

I will concede that learning a non-native sound is probably harder than learning a new motion, but you’re also talking about spelling here. I’m not sure how sign language is transcribed, but it doesn’t seem like it would be easy.

To the extent that this is true, I think it’s because you can simply point in the right direction. But you can also use pointing gestures in conjunction with spoken language. And what inherent advantage is there in the exclusive use of gestures rather than a common spoken language supplemented by gesture where appropriate?

Well, that would depend on what you’re agreeing to! :wink:

Anyway, I wasn’t asserting that it’s a universal language; just that if one were to write ASL, one might want to use that system.

Nitpick: Japanese, an Altaic language, is as far from Chinese (a Sino-Tibetan one) as English is. Duffer’s main point makes sense to me, though.

False. ASL is just as complex in speech patterns, sign formation, and structure as any spoken language.

False. With ASL, you can describe snow, but everyone who doesn’t know ASL will need a translation. Signs are arbitrary, not pantomime.

There’s plenty of room for mispronunciation in ASL.

False. ASL has a very complex grammar, as complex as any spoken language.

Absolutely, utterly, devastatingly false. If you think this, you haven’t the slightest familiarity with ASL.

ASL is a naturally-developed language, with as much complexity and nuance as any spoken language. We might as well chose Sanskrit or Navaho as our universal language.

Everything in this corresponds to my understanding of ASL. duffer, may I ask what familiarity you have with ASL? It sounds to me as if you don’t speak it, which does make me wonder on what basis you’re nominating it as a universal language. Wouldn’t it make sense to become fluent in a language before making such a nomination?


While you are correct in that Japanese is not even remotely related to Chinese, the existence of an Altaic langauge family, containing Japanese, is highly controversial.

There isn’t the same agreement among linguists about Altaic as there is for, say, Indo-European.

My familiarity is slim to none. I know 3 people that use it and have a book that I have yet to seriously start studying. I mentioned ASL only because it’s what I’m aware of. Like I said, I really didn’t know there were other language signs, though my lack of awareness to the most blatantly obvious shouldn’t be a surprise. :stuck_out_tongue: I guess it doesn’t really matter what style of sign we’re talking about. From the way I see it, it wouldn’t matter. I’m looking at sign in the overall sense, not variations of it.Which I suppose means picking one for everyone to use, in which case we’re back to a universal spoken language. (Hey, I said I was thinking about it for awhile, I made no claim to the quality of said thinking.)

And I had no idea that Japanese and Chinese were fundamentally different. I can visually see a differense in the icons, I just figured it was a different font or something like that. Either way, it’s all Greek to me. :smiley:

We’re talking about the spoken language. Japanese writing is based on the Chinese writing system, and is to a large extent mutually intelligible. But the spoken langauges are as different as English and Arabic (maybe even more so).

Imagine that Arabic uses the symbol “#” to mean “number” in arabic. Same symbol in both languages, but the spoken word is different.

As has been explained, there’s enormous emotional nuance involved in sign languages; there’s no advantage (if you believe it would be an advantage) on the part of sign language for avoiding conveying emotions. And choosing “sign language” as an international language is a statement equivalent to choosing “spoken language”. Hey, why don’t we all just use “spoken language” as an international language? Neither sign languages nor spoken languages are easy for non-native speakers to learn; few hearing people ever manage to learn ASL well, for instance. And I would conjecture that picking up a language based on a fundamentally different style of communication (gestures rather than speech) would probably be harder for most of us.

Japanese and Chinese are completely unrelated and are extremely different from one another. In fact, under the various (not well accepted) theories trying to establish genetic relationships between all the languages on earth, Japanese and Chinese are further apart from one another than English is from Chinese. In terms of grammar, there is basically zero similarity.

You seem to be conflating facts about their writing systems with facts about their languages. But writing system has nothing to do with it; think of all the languages that use, like English, the Roman alphabet; many are completely unrelated. Japanese uses a writing system based upon Chinese characters, in addition to syllabic characters invented in Japan; however, the similarity of their writing systems doesn’t mean jack about how similar the languages are.

Right. To whatever extent the Altaic hypothesis is believed, it consists of Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic. Extending Altaic to include Korean or Japanese, as is sometimes done, is a matter of speculation and nothing else.
Frankly, the OP is so far off in describing both signed and spoken languages that this hardly constitutes a reasonable start to a discussion.