Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Can Your Hands Speak 40 Languages?

with 3 comments

I’m always reading and doing research for any number of projects, and occasionally something sticks with me that just continues to be fascinating.

This post is about one of those fascinating things … but prepare yourself.
The more you think about this one, the more interesting it gets.

Here’s where we start:

There was, and still is, a system of signs and gestures now called Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) that was used throughout much of North America. Generally called “hand talk” by those who used it, this was an auxiliary language—a lingua franca that allowed people who didn’t share a native tongue to share news, trade, and tell dirty jokes.

http://sunsite.utk.edu/pisl/photos.html

Rushing Bear demonstrating the sign for NOW, 1880. NAA Inv. 01309100 (via http://sunsite.utk.edu/pisl/photos.html)

So what, right? There have always been lingua francas. There’s the original Mediterranean lingua franca where we get the name. And there’s Latin, French, Arabic, Chinese …

Well, here are more interesting facts:

  • PISL was commonly used across about 1 million square miles (that’s about a quarter of the entire continent of Europe)
  • Some estimates say PISL was used by speakers from nearly 40 (yes FORTY) different languages and multiple language families
  • There’s some evidence that PISL was used within a group to communicate with deaf members, instead of (or sometimes in addition to) a separate group-specific signing system

But the most interesting part is that I’m NOT talking about an oral language. As far as I know, most lingua francas are literally lingual—spoken. This one isn’t.

Additionally, when people agree (or are forced to agree) on a common language, it’s often the language of a dominant people. That is, he who has the most toys gets to talk the way he wants.

But it looks like PISL isn’t quite like that, either. It’s not like the Pawnee, Cheyenne, Ojibwa, and Apache all decided to speak Lakota. Instead, PISL isn’t an established language linked to a society, or even a sign language peculiar to one group. It’s an independent system—maybe (and I’m partially guessing here) more like a kinesthetic pidgin that developed for simple communication and trade …

(Looks like it’s time for me to continue that research.)

Also, think about THIS:
Plains Indian Sign Language was used by nearly forty distinct societies, right?

But even today there is no standard international signing system for English alone (at least not that I’m aware of). We have American Sign Language, Auslan, British Sign Language, and Signed Exact English … some of which are mutually unintelligible.

The point is this: PISL is fascinating in its scope, uniqueness and use. And, sadly along with many other American Indian tongues, it’s considered an endangered language.

There is some effort to document and revive it, and I’d highly recommend poking around the Hand Talk: American Indian Sign Language website set up by Jeffery Davis at the University of Tennessee. There’s more information, illustrations, links to other resources, and some video of PISL speakers.

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3 Responses

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  1. Hey pal,
    You should consider using this is a book. (wink-wink, nudge-nudge)

    Brian O'Rourke

    December 21, 2012 at 4:42 pm

  2. This is great stuff. I studied sign language here in California for awhile (I’d say it’s a bit like my Spanish in that I ‘know’ more than I can either speak or understand) and so this native American version sounds very interesting. I’ll have to check out that site.

    Seana

    December 29, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    • Seana, the site has some neat videos and illustrations as well as history on it. I’d highly recommend it!

      Nathanael Green

      January 7, 2013 at 2:18 pm


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