Making signs in a public bath

So earlier today I was sitting in a geo-thermal heated pool with about 15 strangers - all local Reykjavikians except for my three friends. Following an extended session of not-too-old-to-use-the-waterslide, I noticed something two Thirty-something guys gesticulating to each other in sign language. 

I couldn't help but wonder...ARE THEY SIGNING IN ICELANDIC?

This question might make me appear rather daft. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of sign language will know that sign languages are independent to spoken ones... Still I was curious. I began to #ponderance.

For those who haven't had the opportunity to spend time with an Icelander, the language here is nothing short of Klingon to a native Australian-English speaker (and non-trekky). Some Icelandic nuance even occurs on the inhale breath, resembling an asthma attack with a delicious Werther's Original in your mouth. So there I was, in my swim-shorts, very seriously considering asking these two gentlemen about their communication.

Thankfully, I was with three impossibly intelligent friends, one of whom is conveniently a linguistics major... So I put the question to her:

As an Australian, I can confidently propose that my people have torched the English language like a neglected chipolata. Shortening perfectly good words to within an inch of their life and putting 'o' or 'y' on the end of them is just the beginning (click here for example). Regardless of slang and sloppy synonyms, in English there are no throat dwelling vibrations or tricky tongue rolling like there is in Icelandic. Icelandic is quite frankly what bridge is to a perfectly good game of GO FISH! 

(Although we know they win at both - check this out).

After a proper poaching in the hot pools, we baptised ourselves in the customary 5 degree celsius pond (a very misleading hot tub with the heat turned off) and I scuttled home to research my ponderance of the day.

This GIF and more were created as part of a brilliant story by - click the image for more.

This GIF and more were created as part of a brilliant story by - click the image for more.

I found some great sources regarding the development of sign languages around the world, and in particular American Sign Language (ASL). Including this amazing article from hopes&fears which introduced me to the deaf subculture and the constant evolution of sign languages.

According to a quick GoogleBooks search, sign language in deaf infants is learnt the same way as spoken language. Taught by peers and parents bit-by-bit until, the child starts using language against its parents somewhere near puberty (that's in there for my sister who is a single mum and all-round legend). The infant begins gesturing for food and love, then a few words, then phrases and then sentences and so on. With this in mind, it is incontestable that all humans on the planet learn an informal sign language as their first language when communicating as infants. The horribly designed and pop-up infested website explains this here.

Click the image to see the story related to this GIF

Click the image to see the story related to this GIF


In verbal families there are more than enough words for a child to hear and repeat (even the rude ones I teach my nephew). On the flip side, in a home with limited sign-language-stimuli, infants will have to work harder to build up their communication skills. In a world where sign languages are niche, there are simply less resources for deaf children to learn from. I would argue that this could have some benefits, where the child is not exposed to a plethora of negative influences that the other little turds at school will teach them.

As part of my research I had a chat with a dear and talented friend of mine, Mr. Daniel Bourne of Ginger & the Ghost and the Sydney creative co-working space THE NEST:

Me: When and why did you learn sign language? Was it difficult to pick up?
Dan: My daughter was born deaf, no, not difficult.
Me: Have you ever signed to a person from a non-English speaking country? If so, was it difficult?
Dan: Yes! Japan, it was cool because sign generally is visually correct.
Me: So was the sentence structure in Japanese really weird? Or was it more or less the same?
Dan: No, communication is key! The first thing on you and any deaf person's mind is "I want to be understood" sentence structure doesn't exist.
Me: So would you describe signing as an extension to your English, or like an entirely separate language?
Dan: Signed English is of course an extension of English. But Auslan (Australian sign language) is a separate language based on english. It's more visual... Signed English would mean using separate signs for every English word... Auslan and many other sign languages are based on visual correctness.
Me: With that in mind, how much do you think people rely on a base language when teaching someone to sign?
Dan: Not much really.
Me: Would you say it would be more difficult for a deaf child to learn sign language from non-deaf parents?
Dan: Haha... No, because they can't hear them anyway

Dan was born with full hearing and apart from industrial deafness from his musical career, he still hears well. When his equally humble and lovely daughter Tallula was born he was introduced to the deaf world. And he didn't see it as a challenge, he was excited about the chance to learn and grow in a new way.

Me: So I gather that sign language is more or less independent of spoken language, what about lip reading? Is it vital?
Dan: Yep! Tallula is so good at lip reading she didn't realise when her hearing was getting worse!

Dan went on to explain that on announcement of Tallula being deaf her family mostly went in to a type of denial, perhaps hopeful that she may just have deafness as an infant or that it would heal. It appeared as though her family weren't motivated to learn Auslan for this reason. Dan had a deaf girlfriend for about a year at uni and learnt some sign language then, as well as getting a glimpse into deaf community culture. Perhaps this is why he was excited about the opportunity to adapt to raising a deaf child. Dan's attitude towards his daughter's deafness didn't surprise me at all, he is one of the most practical and optimistic people I have ever met... But what about the people who aren't born with a fierce can-do complex?

After researching and writing this article, I learnt that the men at the pool would more than likely have been signing in Icelandic sign language which is derived from Danish sign language. They would have learned it at home and school growing up. 

I really want to find the point when language created a difficulty for deaf people, before sign language was a juggernaut of communication of its own accord. 

I'll have a bit more of a ponder and look in to this... Stay tuned!