Examples of Australian sign language

The above is a YouTube clip showing some traditional hand signs of Australia.  The concept of Aboriginal ‘sign-language’ and the reason for its development is something that has struck me as quite interesting.  Its natural generation was akin to the development of sign-language in the playground of an Eastern European school for the deaf, when the formal classes of lip-reading were proving inefficient as a form of communication (Pinker, 1995).  The main difference, of course, is that Aboriginal users of hand signs are mostly not hearing impaired, but the necessity for a silent form of communication was still there.

I think that most cultures have hand signs to indicate different things, even here in Melbourne.   For example, thumbs up to mean good; tapping my wrist watch, or even my wrist where a watch might be to indicate being short of time or impatient; cupping my hand in a c-shape and wiggling it in front of my mouth to indicate that I would like a drink; and slapping my forehead with an open palm suggesting idiocy of either myself or another, I believe are commonly recognised symbols.  Conversing using these hand signs is also possible.  For example, if I pointed to my husband, then myself and then indicated needing a drink, I would, if my husband were feeling endearing towards me at the time, end up with a glass of water.  Different communities have different hand signs for the purpose of communication.  The often parodied baseball exchange between the coach and the batter, or the directions given in SWAT teams to apprehend a criminal (as seen on TV) are examples of this.  Learning and understanding Australian ‘sign language’, therefore, I believe is a fabulous way of unpeeling and understanding the intricacies of cultural interchange within the relative social groups.  Primarily, it’s an insight into the reason for its necessity as an extended means of communication for women during times of mourning, as a practical tool hunter-gathering, and as a means of respecting the social relationships of the community.  The content of the surviving ‘sign language’ is also an insight into the needs of individuals in the community and the kinds of things that they talked about.

One point I found of particular interest in the article by Kendon [2015] was the contrast between the structure of ‘sign language’ developed by a hearing community, and that used in a non-hearing community.  The main difference was found in its relationship to the morphemic structure of the word.  Sign language used by those without hearing are less likely to have a relationship with the sound of the word, rather than its meaning.  It was also interesting to read that those with hearing who sign tend to grunt for emphasis, which was not apparent for deaf users.    In fact, Kendon suggests that the close relationship of Australian ‘sign language’ to the spoken language, which also surmounts to why it has been rejected as a pure sign language, can provide a possible insight into the modality of Australian languages and the semiotic properties of this modality.  I think that it certainly opens up further insight into the linguistic, and therefore cultural properties of every day life in Aboriginal communities.

In 2011 – 2012, as part of the Arandic Endangered Languages project (Arts, 2016) efforts were made to document the rich Aboriginal method of communication using hand signs.  The database was then made available online at http://iltyemiltyem.tumblr.com/.

Anna Stewart

Arts, A. G. (2016, 08 29). Talking hands – The iltyem-iltyem ‘sign language’ project. Retrieved from Ministry for the Arts: http://arts.gov.au/indigenous/ils/case-studies/TalkingHandssignlanguageproject

Kendon, A. (2015, September). Some characteristics of Australian Aborinal sign languages with hints for further questions for exploration. Learning communities: Special Issue: Indigenous Sign Languages.

Pinker, S. (1995). The Language Instinct. Middlesex, Great Britian: Penguin Books.


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