The Grammar Rules of Sign Language Have Nothing to Do with Hands—Here’s Why

The grammar of sign language is incredibly complex. Here's how a signer's facial expressions, head movements, and even eye motions can impact the meaning of a phrase.

Monika-Wisniewska/ShutterstockSign language, the primary form of communication of the Deaf community, has been in use for hundreds of years. You’re probably most familiar with American Sign Language, but sign language is used all over the world and has nearly 150 variations. Sign language interpreters can be seen everywhere from classrooms to graduation ceremonies to major sporting events. Here are eight things you should never do or say to a deaf person.

When you think of sign language, you most likely imagine signers using their hands to form words and letters. However, hands are only one of the many different body language techniques that signers use to get their meaning across. In fact, much of the grammatical structure of sign language is not indicated by the signer’s hands. Here’s how an 11-year-old used sign language to save lives.

While the hands are responsible for forming the words themselves, markers called non-manual elements control much of the language’s grammatical structure (these grammar rules have changed a lot in the last decade). Non-manual elements (or markers) are body language techniques that don’t use the hands. These include head movements, body positioning, and facial expressions. Used together with the signs, these elements give sign language a nuanced and extremely complicated grammatical structure. Linguist Andrea Lackner from Alpen-Adria University in Austria performed a pair of studies that show just how important these non-manual elements are to sign language users.

For one study, the researchers played a video of someone using Austrian Sign Language, showing it to both sign language users and non-users. Then, they asked the participants to choose the moments in the video that they thought divided the phrases grammatically. The results were pretty stunning. The signers and non-signers mostly identified the same hand motions, such as pauses and repeated signs. However, far more signers than non-signers identified non-manual elements as crucial to the sentence’s grammatical meaning. This just goes to show that sign language is as complicated as any foreign language, with a grammatical structure that is challenging for non-users to understand.

The second study assessed just how many different things non-manual elements can do. For this study, all participants were deaf users of Austrian Sign Language. Again watching a video of someone using sign language, they had to describe the purpose of each non-manual element. The results were incredibly complicated. For instance, things as subtle as the direction of the signer’s gaze can indicate whether or not a statement is hypothetical. A single head movement can indicate the emotion of a statement, a conditional or “if” situation, or a signer’s feelings toward a hypothetical question. Body language is always important, but in sign language, it can change the entire meaning of a sentence!

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.