Sign language evolved from five European lineages

Origins of sign language revealed: Scientists claim all signing variations around the world evolved from just FIVE European sources

  • Scientists analysed intricacies of 40 current and 36 historical sign languages 
  • Found traits of five major lineages in all current sign languages around the world
  • British, French, Spanish, Austrian and Swedish signing were the original five 
  • Spread and evolved into all modern variations after the late 18th-century  

Sign languages, like oral speech, vary enormously around the world but experts know little about how the various dialects evolved.  

Now a new study of 40 current sign languages and 36 historical versions has revealed that they all stem from five major sources. 

Researchers believe five main European versions of sign language — British, French, Spanish, Austrian and Swedish — spread around the world in the late 18th century and evolved to form the plethora of languages seen today. 

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Researchers believe five main European lineages — British (dark blue), French (turquoise), Spanish (pink), Austrian (dark green) and Swedish (light blue)— spread around the world in the late 18th century and evolved to form the plethora of languages signed today 

Sign languages, like oral speech, vary enormously around the world but experts know little about how the various dialects evolved. Scientists delved into sign language’s ancestry by studying nuances of 40 current and 36 historical versions (stock)

Linguists have long studied the origins of human speech, with two centuries of research dedicated to unravelling the birth and evolution of human dialogue. 

But the researchers from the University of Texas claim sign language has been far less studied, despite being ‘at least as ancient as speech’.

Justin Power, a PhD student at the University of Texas in the US and first author on the study, said: ‘While the evolution of spoken languages has been studied for more than 200 years, research on sign language evolution is still in its infancy. 

‘Much of what we know about the histories of contemporary sign languages has come from historical accounts of contact between deaf educational institutions and educators. 

‘We wanted to know if a comparison of sign languages using contemporary and historical sources could shed light on how European sign languages have developed and spread around the world.’ 

The study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, assessed a total of 76 sign language ‘manual alphabets’.  

Manual alphabets are forms which signers use to spell written words using a sequence of hand shapes. 

These are known to date back as far as the 17th century following the creation of educational institutions for the deaf during the European Enlightenment. 

Evolutionary biology and linguistics techniques were applied to the various languages to find any similarities between them. 

These subtle similarities and relationships were then used to map out their evolutionary lineages. 

This allowed researchers to create a physical map of where and when sign languages spread across Europe and then around the world.   

For instance, the researchers found the influence of French Sign Language on deaf education and signing communities in western Europe and the Americas. 

In addition, the team was able to trace the dispersal of Austrian Sign Language to central and northern Europe, as well as to Russia. 

Mr Power said: ‘The network methods allow us to analyse in detail the complex evolution of complete lineages, manual alphabets, and individual hand shapes. 

‘Integrating these methods with our research into historical manual alphabets gives us a powerful framework for understanding the evolution of sign languages.’

HOW DOES ENGLISH SIGN LANGUAGE VARY GLOBALLY?

There are about 37.5 million deaf or hard-of-hearing people in the US and American Sign Language (ASL) is the third most used language in the country.

ASL is a complete language that uses signs made by moving the hands combined with facial expressions and body postures.

It is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf and is one of many communications options for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

British Sign Language (BSL) is used in place of ASL in the UK.

BSL users utilize both hands for the alphabet while ASL users only utilize one.

ASL communicators and verbal English speakers rely on the same neural skills to chat, a report says (file photo)

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