Home Sign


Home sign (or kitchen sign) is a gestural communication system developed by deaf children who lack input from a language model in the family, such as those with hearing parents who are isolated from a sign language community.

While not developing into a complete language (as linguists understand the term), home sign systems show some of the same characteristics of sign and oral languages, and are quite distinguishable from the gestures that accompany speech. Words and simple sentences are formed, often in similar patterns despite different home sign systems being developed in isolation from each other. Comparisons can be made between home sign and pidgins (a simplified language that develops between two or more groups that do not have a common tongue).

There is great disparity among families with respect to the extent to which members attempt to learn or participate in the signing of the deaf child. In many cases, no one but the deaf child attempts to sign more than minimally. When two or more children in a family are deaf, however, more sophisticated language develops. This is a nonverbal form of idioglossia (the ‘private languages’ of young children, especially twins, the latter being more specifically known as cryptophasia, and commonly referred to as twin speech).

Linguists have been interested in home sign for the insights it offers into the uniquely human ability to generate, acquire, and process language in general, and particularly as it pertains to such topics as the origins of language, notions of linguistic universals, the hypothesized critical period for language acquisition, children’s natural tendency to invent language (language acquisition device), and the relationship between gesture and language. The experience of home signers is contrasted with that of feral children who, with no human social interaction, develop no language at all.

Linguist Nancy Frishberg set out a framework for identifying and describing home-based sign systems in 1987. She states that home signs differ from sign languages in that they: do not have a consistent meaning-symbol relationship, do not pass on from generation to generation, are not shared by one large group, and are not considered the same over a community of signers.

However, home sign is often the starting point for new deaf sign languages that emerge when deaf people come together. For example, following the establishment of the first deaf schools in Nicaragua in the 1970s, the previously isolated deaf children quickly developed their own sign language, now known as Nicaraguan Sign Language, from the building blocks of their own diverse home sign systems. Home sign even played a part in the formation of American Sign Language, which is a blend of home sign, Old French Sign Language, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, and Plains Indian Sign Language. According to her teacher Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller had developed over sixty home signs long before she was taught to communicate through finger spelling.

Psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow has published a number of articles on home sign systems. She found that the home sign gestures of American deaf children are not acquired from modelling the gestures of their hearing parents — they more closely resemble the gestures of the Chinese deaf children halfway across the globe. They are structured communication systems that include gestures that function as words, which are combined to form sentences, and are used to describe situations beyond the here-and-now.

Adam Kendon, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the topic of gesture, published a celebrated study of the homesign system of a deaf Enga woman from the Papua New Guinea highlands, in which he investigated the notion of iconicity (conceived similarity or analogy between the form of a sign and its meaning, as opposed to arbitrariness) in language and gesture.

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