Origins of Sign Languages

David F. Armstrong and Sherman Wilcox

in The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education, Volume 1, Second Edition

Second edition

Published in print January 2011 | ISBN: 9780199750986
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology

 Origins of Sign Languages

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This chapter maintains that human languages emerge from purposeful human behavior, the most common of which are visible gestural behaviors. We further suggest that sign languages were probably the first human languages. These assertions are based on the observation that gestural communication is exhibited by all of the Hominoidea, the primate superfamily that includes apes and human beings; the fact that iconic and indexic gestures have been identified in the behavior of feral chimpanzees; and by noting that this sort of behavior was probably part of the repertoire of the common ancestors of chimpanzees and humans, thus of the earliest hominids. We propose an evolutionary model for the emergence of language based on semantic phonology and further demonstrate how spoken languages developed subsequently out of vocal gestures. Rationales are provided for the eventual predominance of speech as the primary medium for human language and for the maintenance of sign systems and gestural systems in conjunction with speech by hearing communities. Finally, we discuss evidence for the emergence of full sign languages whenever numbers of deaf people reach critical mass. Key aspects of this discussion include homesigns and sign systems used in small scale societies with significant numbers of deaf members; the earliest evidence for deaf communities with sign languages; the origin of Langue des Signes Française and ASL; and the origin and elaboration of Nicaraguan Sign Language, especially with respect to what the emergence of a new language tells us about the human language faculty.

Keywords: gesture; sign language; language origins; evolution; deaf; hard-of-hearing; hearing loss

Article.  9137 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Educational Psychology ; Cognitive Psychology

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