How Sign Language Works

Other Sign Languages

Sign Language Interpretation Lab at GPC
Sign Language Interpretation Lab at GPC

In the United States, there are two other forms of sign language that have wide usage: Signed Exact English and Pidgin Signed English. Additionally, some Americans are also fluent in the International Sign Language vocabulary.

Signed Exact English (SEE)

Signed Exact English is a language that attempts to translate spoken English into a signed language. SEE includes prefixes, suffixes, tenses, words and sentence structures not found in ASL. SEE signers try to be very specific and literal, while ASL signers concern themselves with expressing concepts. An ASL signer can use the sign for "beautiful" to mean something is pretty, beautiful or lovely, but people signing in SEE will designate the specific meaning of the sign by signing the initial letter before moving on to the concept's sign. For example, a signer communicating the word "pretty" in SEE would first sign the letter "p" and then perform the ASL sign for "beautiful."

Hearing teachers who interact with deaf or hard of hearing children often prefer SEE to ASL, mainly because SEE uses the same rules and facilitates the learning process for reading English. SEE instructors encourage students to use listening techniques and learn to speechread to make it easier to communicate and understand others. It takes an SEE signer longer to sign something than someone using ASL or PSE, because the SEE signer must include word endings, auxiliary verbs, et cetera. Some educators stress the concept of total communication, which includes sign language, gestures, fingerspelling, speechreading, speech, reading, writing and pictures.

Pidgin Signed English (PSE)

Pidgin Signed English uses a vocabulary pulled from ASL, but the syntax follows English word order. PSE doesn't require signers to include words that carry no information, such as "am," "to," and "the." Signers will often drop prefixes or suffixes for words. PSE can be easier to learn than ASL or SEE -- signers don't have to be familiar with all the idioms in ASL, and they don't have to sign all the words necessary for SEE. PSE does not have a firmly established format -- in some regions, PSE may resemble SEE more than ASL, while in others, the reverse is true.

Since you don't have to translate every English word into sign language with PSE, it's easy to speak English and sign PSE at the same time. You don't have to worry as much about your speech getting ahead of your signs as you would with SEE. Many sign-language interpreters use some form of PSE.

International Sign Language

In 1951, the World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf proposed creating a unified sign language. In 1973, the Federation formed a committee to create a vocabulary of standardized signs. The committee called the vocabulary of over 1,500 signs "Gestuno," which is an Italian word that means "unified sign language." Today, Gestuno is known as International Sign Language, and while it uses a standardized vocabulary, there is no standardization of grammar or usage. Much like the constructed spoken language of Esperanto, ISL hasn't revolutionized international communication. The language lacks the evolutionary aspect of natural sign languages.

In the next section, we'll look at some other uses for sign language.