: Why isn’t there an Universal Sign Language?


: Why isn’t there an Universal Sign Language?

In: 132

The same reasons why we don’t have a universal spoken language in the first place. Languages were created a long time ago before international communication was easy. Sign languages were made in an era where you couldn’t easily communicate with people in different countries. So you couldn’t collaborate and work together on making a single language. Deaf people in America made a different sign language than the deaf people in England for example.

And convincing people to learn a different language and make that the new one they teach their children is very difficult.

The languages developed separately, and no one is willing to say “no, your language is the right one, we’ll use that”. People tried that with a spoken language, Esperanto, and I think that only exists in Duolingo now.

[Relevant XKCD](https://xkcd.com/927/)

We tried that with spoken languages.

It was called Esperanto. It’s a well made language, but it didn’t really catch on.

The same thing would happen if you tried to force everyone to switch to a new Sign Language.

The same question can be posed about spoken languages: why isn’t there just one universal spoken language? Just like spoken languages, sign language differ in the way signs (gestures) are expressed and what they actually mean. Depending on when and where you’re born, how you gesture and what that gesture means differs. There are many sign languages: from American, British, and French to Chinese, Japanese, and Indo-Pakistani. There’s a long history and rich diversity for sign languages. Some, like the [Plains Indian sign language,](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plains_Indian_Sign_Language#History) is centuries, if not thousands, of years old. Sign language might even be older and more innate than spoken language. [Children with hearing impairments not exposed to sign language will create their own system of gestures to communicate.](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3606027)

Even people without hearing impairments have spoken words or signs that can have very different meanings elsewhere. For example, if you visit Albania and say car, Albanians may very well think you’re saying penis ([*kar* in Albanian](https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/kar#Noun_4)). And the [OK sign in Brazil](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OK_gesture#Negative_connotations) is the equivalent of *fuck you* in Western countries. This made for a pretty awkward interaction for U.S. president Richard Nixon when [he visited São Paulo in the 1950s,](https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1992-01-26-9201080471-story.html) only to essentially flick everyone off.

In short, like spoken language, sign language is a natural language. It evolves with time and the contributions of its speakers. New words/signs are made, and old ones are discarded. This has happened for thousands of years, and will continue to do so. Many of those languages evolved independently from each other, but as international signers interacted with each other, languages began to be influenced, too.

Just like spoken language, sign language has its own regional variations. Bsl, asl, and jsl are all different. Some signs may be similar, but knowing one language does not guarantee fluency in the other.