International Sign

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International Sign
RegionDeaf conferences
Native speakersnone
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3ils
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International Sign
RegionDeaf conferences
Native speakersnone
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3ils

International Sign (IS) is an international auxiliary language sometimes used at international meetings such as the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) congress, events such as the Deaflympics, and informally when travelling and socialising. It can be seen as a kind of pidgin sign language, which is not as conventionalised or complex as natural sign languages and has a limited lexicon.



While the more popular term is either International Sign or International Signs, it is sometimes referred to as Gestuno,[1] International Sign Language (ISL), International Sign Pidgin[2] and International Gesture (IG).[3] International Sign is a term used by the World Federation of the Deaf and other international organisations.

Types of International Sign

It appears to be at least three different types:


Deaf people have used a kind of auxiliary gestural system for international communication at sporting or cultural events since the early 19th century.[4] The need to standardise an international sign system was discussed at the first World Deaf Congress in 1951, when the WFD was formed. In the following years, a pidgin developed as the delegates from different language backgrounds communicated with each other, and in 1973, a WFD committee ("the Commission of Unification of Signs") published a standardized vocabulary. They selected "naturally spontaneous and easy signs in common use by deaf people of different countries"[5] to make the language easy to learn. A book published by the commission in the early 1970s, Gestuno: International Sign Language of the Deaf, contains a vocabulary list of about 1500 signs. The name "Gestuno" was chosen, referencing gesture and oneness.

However, when Gestuno was first used, at the WFD congress in Bulgaria in 1976, it was incomprehensible to deaf participants.[6] Subsequently, it was developed informally by deaf and hearing interpreters, and came to include more grammar — especially linguistic features that are thought to be universal among sign languages, such as role shifting and the use of classifiers. Additionally, the vocabulary was gradually replaced by more iconic signs and loan signs from different sign languages.

The name Gestuno has fallen out of use, and the phrase "International Sign" is now more commonly used in English to identify this sign variety. Indeed, current IS has little in common with the signs published under the name 'Gestuno'.

A parallel development has been occurring in Europe in recent years, where increasing interaction between Europe's deaf communities has led to the emergence of a pan-European pidgin or creole sign. It is referred to by some sign linguists as "Eurosigns". Influence in Euro-Signs can be seen from British Sign Language, French Sign Language and Scandinavian signs.


The lexicon of International Sign is limited, and varies between signers. IS interpreter Bill Moody noted in a 1994 paper that the vocabulary used in conference settings is largely derived from the sign languages of the Western world and is less comprehensible to those from African or Asian sign language backgrounds.[7] A 1999 study by Bencie Woll suggested that IS signers often use a large amount of vocabulary from their native language,[8] choosing sign variants that would be more easily understood by a foreigner.[9] In contrast, Rachel Rosenstock notes that the vocabulary exhibited in her study of International Sign was largely made up of highly iconic signs common to many sign languages:

"[O]ver 60% of the signs occurred in the same form in more than eight SLs as well as in IS. This suggests that the majority of IS signs are not signs borrowed from a specific SL, as other studies found, but rather are common to many natural SLs. Only 2% of IS signs were found to be unique to IS. The remaining 38% were borrowed (or "loan") signs that could be traced back to one SL or a group of related SLs."[10]


People communicating in International Sign tend to make heavy use of role play, as well as a feature common to most sign languages researched to date: an extensive formal system of classifiers. Classifiers are used to describe things, and they transfer well across linguistic barriers. It has been noted that signers are generally better at interlingual communication than non-signers, even without a lingua franca. Perhaps, along with deaf people's experience with bridging communication barriers, the use of classifiers is a key reason.

A paper presented in 1994 suggested that IS signers "combine a relatively rich and structured grammar with a severely impoverished lexicon".[11] Supalla and Webb (1995) describe IS as a kind of a pidgin, but conclude that it is "more complex than a typical pidgin and indeed is more like that of a full sign language".[12]

Letters and numbers

A manual alphabet is used for fingerspelling names, which is based on the one-handed systems used in Europe and America for representing the Roman alphabet. In a two-way conversation, any manual alphabet known may be used; often one speaker will fingerspell using the alphabet of the other party, as it is often easier to spell quickly in an unfamiliar alphabet than to read quickly. ISL also has a standardised system of numbers as these signs vary greatly between sign languages.

Use of indigenous signs

Each region's own sign is preferred for country and city names. This may be used in conjunction with spelling and classifying for the first instance, and the indigenous sign used alone from then on.

Examples of International Sign

See also


  1. ^ Rubino, F., Hayhurst, A., and Guejlman, J. (1975). Gestuno. International sign language of the deaf. Carlisle: British Deaf Association.
  2. ^ McKee R., Napier J. (2002) "Interpreting in International Sign Pidgin: an analysis." Journal of Sign Language Linguistics 5(1).
  3. ^ Bar-Tzur, David (2002). International gesture: Principles and gestures website
    Moody, W. (1987).International gesture. In J. V. Van Cleve (ed.), "Gallaudet encyclopedia of deaf people and deafness", Vol 3 S-Z, Index. NewYork: McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc.
  4. ^ McKee R., Napier J. (2002), citing:
    *Moody, B. (n.d.). International communication among deaf people. Unpublished, undated manuscript.
    *Scott Gibson, L. & R. Ojala (1994). “International Sign Interpreting.” Paper presented to the Fourth East and South African Sign Language Seminar, Uganda, August 1994.
  5. ^ British Deaf Association. (1975). Gestuno: International sign language of the deaf. Carlisle, England: BDA.
  6. ^ Rosenstock, Rachel. International Sign: Negotiating Understanding, Research at Gallaudet, Fall 2005 - Winter 2006. This article was derived from the author's 2004 PhD dissertation:
    * Rosenstock, Rachel. (2004). An Investigation of International Sign: Analyzing Structure and Comprehension. Gallaudet University.
  7. ^ Moody, B. (1994). International Sign: Language, pidgin or charades? Paper presented at the "Issues in Interpreting 2" conference, University of Durham, Durham, April 1994. Cited in McKee R., Napier J. (2002)
  8. ^ Sutton-Spence, Rachel and Woll, Bencie. (1999) The Linguistics of British Sign Language: An Introduction. p. 32. ISBN 0-521-63718-X
  9. ^ Day, Linda, (2000) British Sign Language in its Social Context, Session 10: Language Planning and Standardisation - notes for students
  10. ^ Rosenstock, Op cit.
  11. ^ Allsop, Lorna; Woll, Bencie; Brauti, John Martin (1995). International sign: The creation of an international deaf community and sign language. In: Bos, Heleen F. and Schermer, Gertrude M. (eds): "Sign Language Research 1994: Proceedings of the Fourth European Congress on Sign Language Research, Munich, September 1–3, 1994." (International Studies on Sign Language and Communication of the Deaf; 29) Hamburg : Signum (1995) - p. 187
  12. ^ Supalla, T. and Webb, R. (1995). "The grammar of international sign: A new look at pidgin languages." In: Emmorey, Karen / Reilly, Judy S. (eds): Language, gesture, and space. (International Conference on Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research) Hillsdale, N.J. : Erlbaum (p. 347).

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