New Research on a Vernacular Sign Language in the New Guinea Highlands



Lauren Reed and Alan Rumsey


Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, Room 5019, Coombs Building 9, ANU


Friday, 18 August, 2017 - 11:00 to 12:30


Sign language typology is a new and exciting frontier in sign language research. One emerging typological distinction is that between ‘deaf community sign languages’, which are the more-or-less standardised languages of typically urban deaf communities, used mainly between deaf people, and ‘village’ or ‘shared’ sign languages, which emerge in rural communities and are used widely by deaf and hearing people in communication with each other. In this model what are taken to be prototypical demographic environments for the emergence of such ‘village’ sign languages are relatively isolated local populations with high rates of in-marriage and correspondingly high rates of congenital deafness.

Initial typological classifications of such ‘village’ sign languages attribute some common traits to them, including: use of a large signing space; lack of spatial inflection to mark verbal agreement; and a preference for absolute rather than ‘metaphorical’ pointing (i.e., for pointing which is anchored directly within the space of interaction between the signers rather than within the imaginary space of the events that that they narrate) (Nyst 2012).

Fieldwork in and around Kailge in the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea reveals a sign language in use by deaf and hearing inhabitants of the area. This language presents a challenge for the existing typology, both in demographic terms and in linguistic ones. People in the Western Highlands do not live in villages but in small settlements or family compounds which are scattered among their garden lands. They interact regularly with each other across a large, relatively open range of such settlements. Accordingly, their sign language is not confined to any particular ‘village’ but is shared across a fairly large, open-ended region. Marriage in the region is exogamous and there are, as far as we know, no particular parts of it where the rate of deafness is markedly higher than in others. The rate is, however, relatively high in world terms across the entire region, probably at least the 0.6% level which is typical of the developing world (Olusanya & Newton 2007). One result of this, combined with a relatively high population density, is that for most of the hearing people deafness is a familiar phenomenon. Moreover it seems to be a readily accepted one, with a high degree of integration of deaf people into everyday social life. Under these circumstances a ‘shared’ sign language has developed, along quite different lines than the standard model of ‘village’ ones.

Likewise, Kailge Sign Language does not show all of what are taken to be typical linguistic features of ‘village’ sign languages as discussed above. While the sign space is somewhat larger than in a typical urban deaf community sign language, Kailge Sign Language makes use of both absolute and ‘metaphorical’ pointing; and verbs may be inflected for agreement. It also shows a number other interesting features, such as a preponderance of mouth gestures (mouth actions unrelated to the ambient spoken language) (Boyes-Braem & Sutton-Spence 2001); and possible grammaticalisation of FINISH as a tense/aspect marker.


Boyes-Braem, Penny and Rachel Sutton-Spence (eds.) 2001. The hands are the head of the mouth: The mouth as articulator in sign languages. Hamburg: Signum.

Nyst, Victoria. 2012. Shared sign languages. In Sign language: An international handbook, ed. by Roland Pfau, Markus Steinbach and Bencie Woll, 552-574. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter.

Olusanya, Bolajoko O. & Valerie E. Newton. 2007. Global burden of childhood hearing impairment and disease control priorities for developing countries. The Lancet 369:1314-1317.



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