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What is white Sign Language?

Sign language is a visual means of communicating using hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language. There are many different sign languages used by Deaf communities around the world. White Sign Language refers specifically to the sign languages developed and used within white Deaf communities.

History of White Sign Language

In the early 19th century, residential schools for the Deaf first opened in Europe and North America. These schools were attended mainly by white Deaf students and taught strictly oral methods of communication. Many Deaf students felt isolated and frustrated by the oralist teaching methods, and began using sign language secretly to communicate. This formed the basis for white sign languages such as British Sign Language (BSL), American Sign Language (ASL), and French Sign Language (LSF).

As these sign languages developed within predominantly white Deaf communities and schools, they evolved into distinct natural languages with their own grammar and structure. However, they were influenced by the oralist teaching methods popular at the time. For example, many signs were based on manually coding spoken languages rather than developing more organic signs. The signs also tended to follow English word order structure.

From the late 19th century onwards, Deaf sports, social clubs, organizations and schools became hubs for white Sign Languages to develop further. New signs were created and spread through the community, leading to regional variations in dialects. As they moved away from manual coding, white Sign Languages became fully-fledged natural languages in their own right.

Distinctiveness of White Sign Languages

White Sign Languages have some distinct characteristics that set them apart from other sign languages used by Deaf communities:

  • They originate from and are used predominantly in white Deaf communities in Europe, North America, and Oceania.
  • They have historical links to oralist teaching methods, which influenced their early development.
  • They follow word order and grammatical structures more similar to spoken European languages like English and French.
  • They use one-handed manual alphabets as opposed to two-handed alphabets used in many Asian and African sign languages.
  • They make relatively little use of iconic signs, preferring more abstract/arbitrary signs.
  • They have an extensive base vocabulary and can express complex abstract ideas.

However, white Sign Languages also share many universal features with sign languages worldwide:

  • Use of hand shapes, movement, location, palm orientation and non-manual features to convey meaning.
  • Visual-spatial grammar different from spoken languages.
  • Arbitrary signs as well as iconic signs.
  • Finger spelling for names and borrowed words.
  • Variations in regional accents/dialects.

Major White Sign Languages

There are dozens of white Sign Languages used around the world. Some of the major ones are:

Sign Language Where Used Number of Users
American Sign Language (ASL) USA, English-speaking Canada 500,000 – 2 million
British Sign Language (BSL) UK, English-speaking Canada, Australia, New Zealand 87,000 – 125,000
French Sign Language (LSF) France, French-speaking Canada 80,000 – 208,000
German Sign Language (DGS) Germany, Austria, Switzerland 16,000 – 32,000
Italian Sign Language (LIS) Italy 50,000 – 100,000
Spanish Sign Language (LSE) Spain 114,000

There are also regional variants of these sign languages – for example ASL has dialects in the USA and Canada. And internationally understood signed systems have been developed, such as International Sign and Signed English.

Linguistic Study of White Sign Languages

For many years, sign languages were marginalized and suppressed, and not considered true languages in their own right. But linguistic research over the past 50 years has demonstrated that sign languages used in Deaf white communities have all the key features that define a natural human language:

  • Phonology – they have a phonological system for articulating signs using hand shape, movement, location, palm orientation and non-manual markers.
  • Morphology – they use morphological processes like affixation to modify signs and indicate grammatical information like plurals or tenses.
  • Syntax – they have their own syntactic rules for word order and sentence structure.
  • Semantics – signs have meaning separate from their phonological form.
  • Pragmatics – signers follow conversational principles like turn-taking, pauses, role-shifts.

Linguists study specific features of white Sign Languages such as:

  • Handshape parameters and phonological constraints.
  • Use of signing space for referents and verb directionality.
  • Role shift and constructed action for narration.
  • Non-manual grammatical markers for questions, negation etc.
  • Mouth morphemes like mouthing vocal words for emphasis.
  • Sign order and spatial grammar principles.
  • Fingerspelling and numbering systems.

By investigating these and other linguistic aspects, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of how white Sign Languages work as complex natural language systems.

Using Interpreters for White Sign Languages

To facilitate communication between Deaf and hearing people, interpreters are needed who can interpret between a white spoken language (e.g. English) and the local white sign language used by the Deaf community.

Interpreting is a complex task that requires fluency in both the spoken and sign language, as well as deep cultural awareness. Good interpreters will have native or near-native fluency in the sign language, understand regional accents and dialects, and adhere to professional interpreting standards.

Some key points for working with white sign language interpreters:

  • Hire qualified interpreters certified by national organizations like RID (USA) or ASLI (UK).
  • For conferences, hire a team of interpreters and allow breaks for alternating.
  • Interpreters should convey the content and spirit of communication without omission or embellishment.
  • Position the interpreter near the deaf participant to allow clear sight lines.
  • Avoid obscuring interpreters’ faces and hands, which Deaf people need to see.
  • Speak at a reasonable pace and allow pauses for interpreting.
  • Address and look at the Deaf person directly, not the interpreter.

When interpreters are used appropriately, Deaf signers and hearing non-signers can communicate just as naturally as if speaking the same language. This provides full communication access and more inclusive environments.

Learning a White Sign Language

For hearing people who wish to learn a white sign language, the best approach is through immersion in the local Deaf community. Attending sign language classes taught by native Deaf teachers is an excellent start. But practicing regularly with fluent signers and getting involved in Deaf events, organizations and social activities will allow faster progress.

Some tips for learning a white sign language:

  • Work on receptive skills (understanding) before productive skills (signing).
  • Use facial expressions and body language to aid understanding.
  • Watch accessible sign language media content, such as signed news reports.
  • Practice fingerspelling and numbers until quick and fluent.
  • Focus on mastering the basic vocabulary of common signs first.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask signers to repeat or rephrase.
  • Be patient – fluency takes time to develop.

Learning a sign language opens up a new world of visual communication and gives you insight into Deaf culture. Even basic sign skills can make a difference in improving accessibility for Deaf colleagues, customers and friends.

The Future of White Sign Languages

Today, white sign languages are more recognized as legitimate languages, thanks to extensive linguistic research. But there is still room for improvement in sign language rights. Some key goals for the future:

  • Recognition of national sign languages in government legislation and policy.
  • Provision of sign language education for both Deaf and hearing children.
  • Increased accessibility services like sign language interpreters.
  • Promotion of Deaf culture, history and sign language use in media.
  • More opportunities for Deaf signers in higher education and employment.
  • Standardization of sign language teaching/learning assessments.
  • Ongoing linguistic documentation and corpus development of sign languages.

With greater awareness and accommodations, white Deaf communities can gain equal communication access via their natural sign languages. Their visual-gestural languages can be maintained, celebrated, and passed on to future generations of Deaf people.


White sign languages like ASL and BSL are fully-fledged natural languages that have developed within predominantly white Deaf communities, with historical links to oralist education methods. Linguistic research has demonstrated they have all the key structural features of human language. There are distinct variants used in different regions, with standardization and interpretation needed to bridge communication with hearing non-signers. Wider social recognition and accommodations for white sign languages will lead to increased accessibility and equality for Deaf signers worldwide.