Our Mission is to be a blessing to churches, ministries and Christian organizations by providing affordable, accurate Christian translations. Read More...

"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."

Col 3:23

Unusual Hand Shapes as Words

Signed languages are poorly documented and may have many more surprises in store for us. Because they are not written down, they can only be observed in the moment of speech or recorded on videotape for later analysis. Anthropologist Angela Nonaka studies endangered signed languages of Thailand and reports that they possess some unusual and scientifically interesting features.

There are at least six signed languages native to Thailand, plus the national standard Thai Sign Language taught to deaf children in schools.54 The national variety was introduced by educators in the 1950s and is based on American Sign Language (ASL). Two sign languages spoken before ASL arrived, Old Bangkok Sign Language and Old Chiangmai, are now endangered, having no fluent speakers under the age of 45, and no longer being used on a daily basis.

A third, Ban Khor Sign Language, is spoken in a remote village in northern Thailand by fewer than 1,000 deaf people and their relatives. Ban Khor has a hand shape that is one of the most universal ones, found thus far in all known sign languages. In ASL, it is the hand shape used for the letter ‘b’, and it looks like this.

According to the grammars of signed languages, each hand shape has a number of possible orientations and contact points. For example, once I make the ‘b’ sign, I can turn my hand in various directions and make contact with various body parts, but all these are strictly limited. Not all possible orientations and hand shapes are allowed by the grammar.

This is analogous to spoken languages, where not all sound combinations that can be pronounced by the mouth are allowed. For example, in English, the word spap or smam are certainly possible combinations of sounds, but to most speakers they sound odd, if not impossible as words.

Likewise, English forbids, but Italian allows words to begin with ‘sb’, such as sbaffo (‘a smudge’); whereas Italian forbids but English allows words to end with ‘sp’, such as ‘clasp’.

Anthropologist Angela Nonaka has discovered a highly unusual use of the ‘b’ hand shape in Ban Khor sign language. So far, no other known sign language takes the ‘b’ hand shape and places it in this particular turned orientation with respect to the body. It is also unusually (for a stationary sign) positioned so that it obscures the face.

Without Ban Khor Sign, we would not know that this placement of the ‘b’ hand shape was even possible in a signed language. Signed languages are poorly documented and may hold many more surprises in store for us. But many will vanish even before people outside the speech community become aware of their existence.

Christian Lingua offers Christian book translation