Interdisciplinary study reveals new insights into the evolution of signed languages | 10/30/2019 | Staff
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A new study, published in Royal Society Open Science, sheds light on the origins and evolution of European sign languages. Using phylogenetic network methods to compare dozens of sign languages, the scholars identify five main European sign language lineages that dispersed to other parts of the world beginning in the late 18th century.

Natural human languages come in two main types based on the modality in which they are expressed and perceived: spoken languages in the oral-aural modality and signed languages in the gestural-visual modality. Although spoken languages and their histories have received the majority of scientific attention, scholars assume that signing, while far less studied, is at least as ancient as speech.

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"While the evolution of spoken languages has been studied for more than 200 years, research on sign language evolution is still in its infancy," says Justin Power, first author of the study. "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."

Many of the world's sign languages include a set of manual forms representing a written alphabet, which signers use to spell written words using a sequence of handshapes. Historical examples of such manual alphabets can be found for many sign languages dating back to the establishment of educational institutions for the deaf during the European Enlightenment.

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To conduct the study, the researchers began by building an annotated database of 40 contemporary and 36 historical manual alphabets. They then compared the manual alphabets using phylogenetic network methods, which can show varying degrees of relation between many languages at the same time. This allowed them to...
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