People can, through sign language, express anything that can be expressed through spoken language so far as I know. So gestures can be fully expressive (there's enough "gesture-space" to build a language). Sign language, though, is derived from that spoken language, because it was developed to allow the hearing-impaired to converse with speakers. Sign language uses gestures mainly at the "word" level and the occasional phrase, though finger-spelling allow allows a signer to convey letters.

What would a gesture-based language look like if it developed organically in a civilization of people who do not speak and hear? For the sake of this question, assume that -- as with speech -- the gesture language develops well in advance of a written form (if a written form even develops at all): we have a civilization of people with no written or spoken language but they use gestures to communicate with each other.

Would the building blocks of the language still be words and grammar, or should we expect to see something very different develop (a la the analogy-based language of Darmok, though that specific example isn't feasible so please don't focus on that)?

  • $\begingroup$ Not enough for its own answer - but the "Kingkiller Chronicles" series by Patrick Rothfuss had a society called the "Adem", which did not display facial emotion because it was considered crude (because it is an uncontrolled physical action). - they accentuated their words in the way they stood, and how their hands were displayed, which revealed how they meant the phrase to be taken (such as with joy, or sarcasm) $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Nov 12 '15 at 20:48
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    $\begingroup$ Some sign languages are derived from spoken ones (like Signed English, which is meant to correlate very closely to spoken English), but most are not (like ASL, which is a very different kind of language from English). $\endgroup$ – Joe Nov 12 '15 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ I have to chime in with @Joe. All naturally evolved sign languages are mostly independent of and unrelated to any spoken language – that’s one reason why people born deaf have difficulties writing and reading, too. Sign languages also have different histories and relatives than their nominal vocal correspondents, e.g. the American sign language (ASL) is closely related to the French, but hardly to the British one (BSL). Head and hand gestures are a different beast, better compared to interjections like hm and uh. English, sadly, lacks a dedicated word for gestured linguistic signs. $\endgroup$ – Crissov Nov 13 '15 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ To conclude, the premise of the question is wrong, especially the sentence “Sign language, though, is derived from that spoken language, because it was developed to allow the hearing-impaired to converse with speakers”. There basically are already many languages like the one imagined, except that they didn’t develop completely without influence from oral and literal languages. PS: Sign languages were spoken before humans learned to use their voice and thereby free their hands and babies still learn to sign earlier and quicker than to voice, although they cry before they gesture. $\endgroup$ – Crissov Nov 13 '15 at 9:51

It would look similar to sign language.

We see this where there is an absence of a common spoken language between people. Gestures mimicking actions are far more intuitive likely the reason people with spoken language barriers resort to pantomiming or pseudo-signing to communicate. If you've ever communicated with someone who did not speak the same language as you, how would you ask them for something to eat? Probably the same way people who sign do:

enter image description here

American Sign Language (ASL) is very visual and conceptual. ASL doesn't really try to mimic spoken language. It's actually likely to be understood by people regardless of their spoken language (if any) because it relies instead upon concepts and visualizations that don't require you to know what word is being used.

For instance the sign for 'year' is one fist orbiting the other one time.

enter image description here

The sign for 'teach' is the action of transferring knowledge from the mind and giving it to another (with the addition of person sign to specify a teacher; a person who teaches):

enter image description here

How to learn? Pick up that knowledge and put it in your own head (but maybe get some new glasses):

enter image description here

Getting more complicated:

Advanced concepts can also be described. ASL is a living language, so it's constantly growing to include more advanced concepts. This article describes some expansions in physics:

The glossary builds on existing signs used by the deaf community and on “the visual or metaphorical relationship to what the things are like in real life”, explains O’Neill.

The signs also build on one another to help convey the scientific relationships between the terms. The sign for mass, for example, is a fist which is then used as a basis for the sign for density (a hand around the fist) and weight (the hand and fist moving downwards).

  • $\begingroup$ That makes sense. How would you use such a language to talk about philosophy, or explain how FTL works, or describe different species of plants? $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Nov 12 '15 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio I presume it would grow in a similar way as the "teach+person" method. There is an interesting article about it. I've added it to my answer. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Nov 12 '15 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ Cool, thanks! Interesting article. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Nov 12 '15 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ I think at some point those people would come up with writing down what they talk and eventually develop a written language (hieroglyphs, probably). After that it would turn out that picture + text is much better than either by itself, and a language for abstract things will be derived from blueprints, maps, and schemes. Just a though... $\endgroup$ – Dallaylaen Nov 12 '15 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio ASL and similar languages are natural languages, which means nothing stops signers from inventing new symbology when they need it. It would not be unreasonable to have a technical portion of the language with very precise symbols which must be done exactly to handle FTL or other physics. Philosophy would likely derive from a series of calligraphy like gestures to impart tremendous subconscious information and resolve from there into precise movements. Also worth considering is that ASL includes the eyes as part of the communication medium. We may find that many... $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Nov 13 '15 at 1:20

About 15yrs back I read an article comparing multiple forms of sign languages, including some that were truly natural languages. (in the sense that they were created by people trying to speak and not based on encoding another language nor created as some arbitrary project. Some of these involved feral children.)

They had some trends. Some of them were familiar. Pointing at things or relative stuff figured in prominently. Pantomime plays a part in pretty much all of these, as I recall, but often abbreviated as with something like ASL. (Which is, by the linguistic terms I learned, a living language but synthetic.) The grammar rules can literally be anything that any language could have. Those vary a ton.

Look up support and criticism of "Universal Grammar" to find the discussion of the question I think you may be trying to ask. Wiki P. is a good place to begin. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar It's one of Chomsky's passions.


Sign language is in itself an analogy; it's an analogy of actions. It maps what humans do to a sign representing that action closely enough to be understood; this is then standardised with the introduction of a formal sign language.

The relationship between sign and natural language is vague enough that you can safely discount it when trying to create a sign language. As the first point here says, sign language is about actions. Sign language seems too close to our natural languages to be useful without a natural language because you automatically associate the actions in sign language with the action you'd take, and then the word for that action. If such a species doesn't have natural languages and therefore words, they'd just associate the action in sign language with the action they'd take, and not go on to associate the word. In a sense, for this species, actions would be the form of communication.

A sign language of another civilisation would, therefore, be formed similarly to our sign languages. How does this civilisation act in certain scenarios? What do they do? Take those actions - such as eating - and form a sign for them. There are a number of other questions around the site about forming a language; you can also use the advice in those to record your language and use it again later.


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