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Signed Language vs Sign Language

by Joanne Cripps and Anita Small, M.Sc., Ed.D.

The Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf (CCSD) has been asked this question often.Should we use the terminology signed language or should it be, sign language? What is our position on this?

Signed language is linguistically correct but it could be misinterpreted so that it does not support the values of the Deaf community. There are many perceptions when we see those two words: signed language. Some people would use this term to argue for their own benefit to negate the value of true languages in sign. They may use the term signed language to advocate for Signed English – Seeing Essential English (SEE1), Signing Exact English (SEE2), or other signed systems that try to represent English on the hands. These signed systems are often presented and labeled as signed languages because they are visually expressed but they are not languages.

The word signed (with “ed”) is an adjective describing the modality of language in signed language. The words sign and language are both nouns in sign language. The emphasis is on both and we are referring to the wholeness of a language. Sign language is an entity interconnected socially, culturally and educationally such as American Sign Language (ASL) and langue des signes québécoise (LSQ).

When signed is changed to sign, it becomes a noun and thus shifts the emphasis, linking it to Deaf identity with a complete visual language. Language and culture are inextricable tied. Deaf Culture needs to have a complete visual language that is highlighted and celebrated by the Deaf community.

The only context in which the term signed language would be used is if you were describing signed languages versus spoken languages in which case the explicit purpose of the discussion was to refer to the modality of languages rather than referring to the languages themselves.

So to answer this question, for the reasons outlined above, CCSD’s position is to use Sign Language to refer to our language ASL or LSQ in Canada.


June 23, 2014

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