Sign Language Linguistics

Scholarly Approach to Sign Language

Two business executives using American sign language
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Sign language is a language with its own syntax and grammar. I have tried, but been unable to, learn this syntax and grammar. Instead, I use sign language in a more "English" manner. For those who want to learn the true syntax and grammar of sign language, it is possible to learn the linguistics of sign language. Some colleges offer sign linguistics studies, and people have done research on sign linguistics.

Sign Linguistics Degree Programs

Gallaudet University offers both a master of arts and a doctorate's degree in sign linguistics through its Department of Linguistics. Students in these programs study both spoken and signed languages to gain an understanding of language. Another college known to offer sign language as part of its graduate linguistics studies is the University of New Mexico Department of Linguistics. Boston University has a graduate program in applied linguistics that has sign language as a specialization option.

Sign Linguistics Community

People interested in sign linguistics can discuss the topic with each other through the Sign Language Linguistics List. This list has publicly available archives on the web.

Linguistic Journals

A few journals are published that deal with sign language linguistics:

  • Sign Language & Linguistics (ISSN: 1387-9316, E-ISSN: 1569-996X ), published by John Benjamins Publishing Company. This journal is available in both print and electronic form.
  • Sign Language Studies, published by Gallaudet University Press.


Modern books on sign language linguistics include Sign Language and Linguistic Theory by W.Sandler. A companion book by Sandler is Sign Language and Linguistics Universals. Both books are published by Cambridge University Press (not yet available at the time this article was written).

The Press also has a British sign language linguistics book, titled The Linguistics of British Sign Language.

Gallaudet University Press has also published several books related to sign linguistics, including Linguistics of American Sign Language.


Quite a bit of research on sign language linguistics has been done, and some of this research is available online. One linguist, Reba Orton, has made several of her papers available online.

  • ASL Compounds, an article analyzing five ASL compounds.
  • ASL Machine Translation, a paper on machine translation of sign language.
  • Non-Manual ASL Signals
  • Word Association Issues, a paper on psycholinguistics comparing deaf and hearing sign.

Boston University has an ongoing American Sign Language Linguistic Research Project. This project studies sign linguistics and develops multimedia tools for linguistics study. One such tool is the SignStream video databank. Another component of this project is the National Center for Sign Language and Gesture Resources, which collects language data.

In addition, the website provides information on various linguistics publicationsĀ and has doctoral papers available for download.

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