International Conference on Historical Linguistics discusses sign language first in Osaka

September 5, 2011

The 20th International Conference on Historical Linguistics (ICHL20), which argues about the history of a language in the world and its change, was held in the National Museum of Ethnology at Osaka, Japan on July 25-30.

At the conference, the first kind in Asia, "sign language" and "the origin of Japanese Language" were the theme of workshops and the symposium for the first time.

Historical linguistics is a study on how a language has changed historically, and the factor that has influenced the change. The program was organized  so that the participants might argue especially across the boundaries of a language family this time. One of them was "historical linguistics of sign language" for an international workshop as general public presentation.

Associate Professor Ted Supalla of Rochester University explained that sign language has been materialized uniquely, affected by the culture of each area, and/or the influence of a spoken language.

In JSL, the thumb is upraised to mean a "man", and a little finger upraised for a "woman" are borrowed from the gestures often used in Japan. Sign language consists of three elements called a hand form, a position, and a motion. Although sex is expressed in JSL by the difference in the form of a hand, which is not common in ASL.

There is not only the difference by the area but change of a time. One of the presenters said that although the publication of the Japanese sign language dictionary in 1963 has been considered to be the oldest until now, it turned out recently that the sign language dictionary, "The Teaching Sign Language Method for the Deaf-mute", was published from a private school for the Blind and Deaf-mute in Kagoshima in 1902, the oldest one.

For example, the number "1000" is signed as if the Chinese character "1000" is written in the air. The elderly Deaf in Kagoshima Prefecture are still signing like this, but a young generation sign differently: they make a ring with three fingers.

The changes in JSL during a little more than 100 years can be classified into three.
1) signs changed over the generation as stated above, 2) signs disappeared from the scene of the life, and 3) newly developed signs such as "personal computer", etc.

Director James C. Woodward of the Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies in the Chinese University of Hong Kong reported that several sign languages are used in a Southeast Asian country, and that many are in the crisis of extinction. A certain government attempts to unify into standard sign language and discourages to teach the other sign language in school.

Dr. Woodward says that this is destruction of Deaf culture and history. The plan to compile a sign language dictionary for the Asia-Pacific region as a project of the center has started, and Deaf people are helping in recording sign language.

Other presenter reported that the JSL users understand the sign language used in Taiwan or South Korea to some extent, because JSL was introduced by Japanese educators in colonial days. JSL of which forms were changed in Japan, such as simplifying, remains as the same in Taiwan or South Korea. Each sign language is changing uniquely, being subject to the influence of other sign language or a spoken language, respectively.

In this conference, all were interpreted in four languages: ASL, JSL, English, and Japanese.

ICHL20 official site (English):

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