Is Sign Language universal?

This is probably the most frequently asked question that I get from people, and one which seems to indicate the extent of public awareness or lack thereof on Sign Language. But it is hardly surprising when there is very little representation of it in the media so it is easy for people to make assumptions about something that they rarely come across. You may notice a Sign Language interpreter in the bottom right corner of the TV screen when the BBC News is on early weekend mornings or you may see some Deaf people conversing in it on public transport. And one of the things people often wonder about is whether there is one single Sign Language understood by all Deaf people around the world or there are multiple Sign Languages that are mutually unintelligible and completely unrelated linguistically.

So, is Sign Language the same everywhere?

In short: no.

Despite sharing a common spoken language, the UK, the USA, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand all have their own Sign Language. The same is true for the Spanish-speaking world or the Arabic-speaking world, and so on. Deaf people in Britain refer to their Sign Language as British Sign Language (BSL), while Deaf Americans call theirs American Sign Language (ASL) because they are different languages and are even unrelated to each other. The reason for this is cultural and historical.

American Sign Language evolved from Old French Sign Language that was brought to the US in the 19th Century, whereas Australian Sign Language (Auslan) has its roots in Britain. Today, ASL still bears similarities with modern French Sign Language (LSF / La Langue des Signes Française), while signers of both BSL and Auslan can fairly understand one another to varying degrees.

The two pictures below illustrate the differences between BSL and ASL fingerspelling alphabet:


ASL finger






Furthermore, like any spoken language, Sign Languages also have a host of regional dialects and variants. A person from the north of Scotland will sign quite differently from someone from London, for example. These differences are akin to accents or dialects that British English possesses. Some of the same signs can mean something totally different in other parts of the UK and can often lead to embarrassing misunderstandings. The same is true between BSL and Auslan. One example is the Auslan sign for “coca cola” which is the same sign for “to f*ck* in BSL.

Some people are of the opinion that Sign Language should be universal so that it would be easier for them to learn and communicate with Deaf people globally. But why should it? The truth is that even if it were universal, it would be inevitable for it to then split into different languages over time anyway. Latin is a good example of this. French, Catalan, Occitan, Provençal, Romanian, Italian, and Portuguese all evolved from Latin. The same process is happening to Arabic across the Middle East and North Africa. This process is natural. Language, whether spoken or signed, is never static. It is dynamic, and so changes all the time. So, when learning Sign Language, it makes sense to learn the local variant and practise with local Deaf people.

As a result, there are at least 200 Sign Languages in existence today. While that may seem like a lot of Sign Languages, bear in mind that there are well over 6,000 spoken ones! Some countries have more than one Sign Language, such as Spain where there are three. Some countries have Sign Language as one of their official languages. New Zealand is one example, which the Deaf community here in the UK are hoping to achieve the same for BSL.

Is Sign Language universal?

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