Is there a reason that different forms of sign-language were developed?

I know different forms of sign-language exist.

My question is why? Why make it more complicated to communicate? I’m not saying it had to be ASL but whatever was chosen why doesn’t everyone get on board with one version and stick to that?

Where I come from we have a saying:

Unu lingvo neniam estas sufiĉa!


Why do we have multiple spoken languages? Why would the answer be any different for sign languages?

It would have made a lot of sense!

But it would also make a lot of sense for everyone to scrap all their spoken languages and switch to a common tongue. Why make it so complicated to communicate?

Languages developed all over the world when civilizations were isolated from each other.

But IIRC sign language was developed in the 19th century. Once one place developed it and another place heard about it I’d think they’d have someone come over and teach them this new thing. Then everyone would be on the same page.

Instead, it seems others heard about the idea and decided they’d just make-up their own version for some reason.

It kind of did. Most different sign languages are part of a few distinct families. ASL is actually in the French family tree.

But language is language, whether it’s sign or oral. It changes over time and is influenced by its surroundings.

Surely you do not mean this literally? Though much old sign language was not written down, for obvious reasons.

Yes I do:

ASL is thought to have originated in the American School for the Deaf (ASD), founded in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817.[6]:4 Originally known as The American Asylum, At Hartford, For The Education And Instruction Of The Deaf And Dumb , the school was founded by the Yale graduate and divinity student Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.[16][17] Gallaudet, inspired by his success in demonstrating the learning abilities of a young deaf girl Alice Cogswell, traveled to Europe in order to learn deaf pedagogy from European institutions.[16] Ultimately, Gallaudet chose to adopt the methods of the French Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, and convinced Laurent Clerc, an assistant to the school’s founder Charles-Michel de l’Épée, to accompany him back to the United States.[16][nb 2] Upon his return, Gallaudet founded the ASD on April 15, 1817.[16]

Though ASL only dates back to then, the link which @Johnny_Bravo provided includes mention of older British and French sign languages which were developed in the 18th century. The article on British sign languages mentions several earlier systems of signs or gestures which were used by the deaf, though it’s not clear to me how large or widely-used those systems were, or if they would be considered a true sign language by modern terms.

The most recent invention of a sign language was in the 1980s Nicaraguan Sign Language - Wikipedia - a large number of deaf children were brought together and invented their own language.

Fair enough but it seems, at most, these systems were separated in time by about 50-60 years max. That is not a whole lot in the scheme of things. Close enough in time and a (newly) smaller world that they certainly could affect each other.

I guess I am saying I don’t see why they would have to develop in isolation from each other at that point in history.

If you’re interested, there’s an excellent podcast from the “Stuff you should know” guys that’s all about sign language.

Because that’s what languages do - they change over time as people use them. In order for, say, people speaking BSL to start speaking ASL instead, they’d have to have a teacher come over and teach them all to speak it as a second language, with the eventual aim of their own language dying out. Not many people are going to agree to that.

It’s not the same as colonial powers requiring their new subjects to speak the coloniser’s language - in those situations, usually the home language lives on, spoken at, well, home. But for profoundly deaf people in the 1800s there really wasn’t any division between home and elsewhere. People who went deaf later in life didn’t tend to use sign language.

What did happen in most of those homes for the deaf is that sign language - any sign language - was discouraged, though that’s not really a strong enough word for tying people’s hands together and beating them if they tried to sign. The reasoning was the deaf people should learn to lip-read and “speak” as clearly as they could, rather than have their own language.

The other factor is that sign language is very difficult to communicate in text form. Early sign language users (and even modern ones to an extent) were far more isolated, linguistically, than those with a written language. That can speed up language change.

Paging @RivkahChaya for some professional first hand (heh!?) inputs.

Sure. But do they do that significantly, to the point of becoming a whole new language, in the space of a few decades (or even 100 years)?

Also, that kinda implies some kind of isolation from other groups. Would that be the case here?

Isolation is worse for sign language than for spoken, for a couple of reasons. First of all, unless you’ve got video, you’re only going to be using sign language with people in physical proximity with you, whereas we’ve had cheap sound transmission over long distance for much longer. Second, Deaf people are a minority - and in many cases a mistreated one; if your parents keep you at home because they are embarrassed by you, you won’t learn fluent sign language even if your parents have some primitive means of getting across ideas to you. The Nicaragua sign language only started when the government brought together several dozen Deaf children.

True, but that’s assuming that there’s one language that then evolves into several different languages over time. But BSL, for example, rose completely independently from ASL - they don’t have a common root, so they were “new” languages already by the time they were identified and given a name. It’s not surprising that BSL and ASL have little in common.

ASL was influenced by French sign language (or, rather, one specific French sign language), but it was also hugely influenced by the sign languages already in use in the US. Basically, it was a mix of different languages right from the start, so it diverged enormously from French sign language from day one.

Forgot the second part of your post - yes, they were extremely isolated from other groups. They had no written form of the language, no way of communicating visually, and very limited opportunities to travel.

I would have thought these isolated people would have little means to spread their own version of sign language.

So, when a place like American School for the Deaf pop on the scene they are a force for teaching a standard version of sign language. Something that will spread and be adopted widely.

So what did that school choose to teach? A modified version? Their own version?

That’s actually answered in the Wiki link you posted - they taught a new form of sign language that was, like I said, a mix of the sign languages the people they brought into the school already spoke in their local areas, and the French sign language the teacher had learned.

Isolated groups didn’t spread their language widely, no… Not sure I said they did?

That can happen with spoken languages in a short time span, too. Creoles can occur when two groups with no common language come together. The adults develop a pidgin which is a simplified mash-up of the two languages. The next generation grow up with the pidgin and convert it into a creole by the time they reach adulthood, a full language.

It doesn’t always happen that fast, but a new language can arise in just one generation.

That’s basically what happened in Nicaragua - a lot of Deaf kids who, basically, had home pidgins based on what their hearing relatives and them had worked out were brought together as young children, combined their pidgins, and developed them into a full language.

Natives Americans in the Plains tribes had a Sign-based trade language, attested to in the 1500’s by Francesco Vasquez de Coranado.

MVSL is a well-attested sign language dating back to the 1700’s. So your information is incorrect.

ASL comes from French Sign (LSF, dating back to at least the 1750’s) which was brought over from France by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet who traveled to France specifically to study education techniques used in France for the Deaf, with influences by prior existing North American Sign languages, especially those in New England like MVSL.

Wherever you have a community of Deaf people you get a Sign language - no matter how isolated that community is from others. Isolated Deaf communities “make up” their own language for the same reason anyone else uses a language - a need to communicate with others. To a lesser extent, hearing people with a need to communicate will also “make up” their own language of gestures, as seen with Plains Sign in North America used as a trade language between different groups with no spoken language in common.

As I said - Gallaudet went to France to study a Sign language there, but when he came home to teach the students, a number of whom came from communities like Martha’s Vineyard that already had a native Sign, brought their language to the mix as well. So within a generation ASL had diverged from LSF and was it’s own language, though still related in many ways to LSF.

It’s like how when the Normans showed up in Britain in 1066 and imposed a lot of French on the locals. The result was a new language, what we call English, that had a traceable relationship to the prior Germanic language AND Norman French, even while it was its own thing as well.