Blog post

Sign Languages - giving voice to the voiceless

There are over 200 different sign languages and dialects in the world! Read more about this ways of visual communication using hand gestures and other types of body language in this blog.

Jolan Wuyts (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Sign languages are ways of visual communication using hand gestures and other types of body language. There are over 200 different sign languages and dialects in the world! They are often less connected to spoken languages than one might think and have complex and rich histories, linguistics and grammar.

Every year on the 23rd of September we celebrate International day of Sign Languages. On the 23rd of September, 1951, the World Federation of the Deaf was founded, which is why this date is a significant one in Deaf culture. The International Day of Sign Languages was first celebrated in 2018, as part of the International Week of the Deaf. International Week of the Deaf (or IWDeaf) has been going on since 2009. Even though these international organisations and events are quite recent, sign languages have existed for centuries. They sprang up out of necessity so deaf and hard of hearing people could communicate.

Most of the knowledge we have on historical sign languages is limited to manual alphabets, which were a way of translating between spoken languages and visual language. Some of the oldest preserved manual alphabets date from the seventeenth century. A lot of remnants of these manual alphabets can still be found in modern sign languages. The vowels in British Sign Language, for instance, are still made by pointing at the tips of your fingers on the left hand.

Even though sign languages were largely developed organically by the users of those languages, throughout history some individuals have been instrumental in formalising and disseminating those languages. The French abbot Charles-Michel de l'Épée published his version of the manual alphabet in the 18th Century, which has stayed largely unchanged in the current French and American Sign Languages. de l'Épée founded the first school for deaf children in Paris. One of the graduates of this first school went on to found the first school for the deaf in the United States.

Because graduates of the French school for the deaf imported their sign language to the United States, there still are a lot of similarities between ASL (American Sign Language) and LSF (French Sign Language). Since most sign languages develop and spread largely independently from spoken languages, you'll find a lot of differences between the geographical influences, geographical spread, grammar and linguistic traits of sign languages versus spoken languages.

One of the biggest influences in the development and spread of a certain sign language is the founding of schools for the deaf.

An example of this is the influence of Carl Oscar Malm and Fritz Hirn on Finnish Sign Language.

Finnish Sign Language developed from Swedish Sign Language through Carl Oscar Malm. Carl had studied at the Stockholm School of the Deaf, where Swedish Sign Language was taught. He took this sign language back with him to Finland, where he founded the first Finnish school for the Deaf in Porvoo in 1846. He would later found a second, state-sponsored school in Turku.

Fritz Hirn was a private student of Malm's, and would later teach at the school for the Deaf in Turku.

The home of Fritz and his wife Maria Hirn quickly became a popular spot for the deaf community of Turku to gather. Out of these lively weekly Sunday gatherings, the first Finnish Association of the Deaf was born, mirroring the Swedish Association of the Deaf. Fritz would go on to start formalising the Finnish Sign Language and found the first deaf kindergarten in Helsinki.

The Deaf community is richly varied, with dozens of different schools dappled throughout Europe reaching different languages and dialects, but all united in serving the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. 2020's International Day of Sign Languages has as its slogan 'Sign Languages are for Everyone!" and the theme of the International Week of the Deaf is "Reaffirming Deaf people's Rights". Learn more about these celebrations on the World Federation of the Deaf's website, and support Deaf people's rights by signing the WFD Charter.

Jolan Wuyts, Europeana

Feature image: Hands spelling out in sign language the words 'The best lovers are good with their hands'; advertisement for safe sex by the British Deaf Association. Wellcome Collection, United Kingdom, CC BY.


Some of the images used in this blog use the word 'dumb' or 'mute' to refer to people from the Deaf community. Even though these words are used in their historical context, these terms are derogatory today and shouldn't be used to refer to members of the Deaf community.

This blog was not written by a member of the Deaf community. Is there something in this blog you think is inaccurate or should be changed? Please contact us at [email protected]

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