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The Significance of African Sign Languages for African Linguistics and Sign Language Studies
Victoria Nyst
77-81 (complete paper or proceedings contents)


Africa hosts a wealth of local, foreign and contact sign languages. The Ethnologue lists about 30 sign languages for Africa, which surely represent just the tip of the iceberg. Current sign linguistic models are mainly based on sign languages of European origin, with very little research on African sign languages. Deaf schools form the cradle of national deaf communities, represented by a National Association of the Deaf in many countries. Deaf schools were often "imported" by foreign organizations, together with a sign language. These languages are usually promoted as national sign languages. Less visible, but much greater in number are deaf people with no access to deaf schools, using local sign languages. These languages come in various types, depending on the spread of deafness in a community. Thus, a single deaf member of a hearing community typically creates a new sign system ("home signs"). In communities with hereditary deafness, a sign language is passed over from one generation to another, as e.g. in Adamorobe, an Akan-speaking village in Ghana. Structural analysis of this sign language reveals striking features, e.g. in the expression of motion. Whereas sign languages typically use entity classifier predicates to express non-agentive motion, Adamorobe Sign Language uses serial verb constructions, similar to Akan (Nyst, 2007). Hearing signers often form an important portion of the language communities of Africa's indigenous sign languages. In this respect, the sociolinguistics of Africa's sign languages is crucially different from the much better researched Western sign languages. This may have repercussions on our insights of what is universal in sign linguistics. The large variation in signing communities and sign languages offers fascinating opportunities for linguistic analysis. At the same time, it poses a challenge to language policies enhancing deaf people's access to information. Surveys and descriptive studies are crucial to meeting this challenge. They are a prerequisite for developing the training materials for interpreters and deaf school teachers, enabling equal participation of deaf signers in society. So far, basic research has mainly been done by deaf associations together with NGOs. Collaboration with linguistic departments of African universities is needed to take sign language research to the next level.

Published in

Selected Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Conference on African Linguistics: Linguistic Interfaces in African Languages
edited by lanik la Orie and Karen W. Sanders
Table of contents
Printed edition: $320.00