Deaf people communicate by use of sign languages that differ from country to country. Linguists have demonstrated that sign languages each have their own lexicon and grammar. At the same time, deaf people are known to communicate with remarkable ease across these language boundaries. This project aims to investigate this paradox: How can people communicate without a shared language? This is a major question not only for linguistics but also for the broader social sciences and humanities: if language is the hallmark of human evolution, and grammar is the core property that distinguishes human language from animal communication, then how can deaf people communicate so easily across language boundaries? We will start from the idea that sign languages share more than they differ, even though they have mostly developed independently of each other. This can be considered a revolutionary hypothesis after decades of trying to pinpoint grammatical differences between sign languages, yet it links to recent work on gesture and sign that highlights the many non-grammaticalised and iconic elements in sign language. The project thus promises to alter our view of the role of grammar in human communication, it will help in understanding language genesis, and contribute to improving cross-cultural communication. Two types of ecologically valid communicative situations will be investigated: 1) first-time encounters between Dutch deaf signers with deaf people from both remote (Chinese) and related (Belgian) cultures and with hearing non-signers from the Netherlands, and 2) conference interpreters working from English to a non-standardised form of ‘international sign’. For both types of situations, the communicative success and communication strategies will be investigated in relation to the linguistic distances between the languages, aiming to answer two questions: how well does it really work, and how do they do it?
Deaf Communication without a Shared Language
Dutch Research Council (NWO)