Manually coded language

Manually coded languages are not themselves languages but are representations of oral languages in a gestural-visual form; that is, signed versions of oral languages (signed languages). Unlike the sign languages that have evolved naturally in Deaf communities, which have distinct spatial structures, these manual codes (MCL) are the conscious invention of deaf and hearing educators, and mostly follow the grammar of the oral language—or, more precisely, of the written form of the oral language. They have been mainly used in deaf education in an effort to "represent English on the hands" and by sign language interpreters in K-12 schools, although they have had some influence on Deaf sign languages where their implementation was widespread.


It is unknown when the first attempts were made to represent an oral language with gesture. Indeed, some have speculated that oral languages may have evolved from sign languages, and there may be undocumented cases in history when vocal and signed modes of a language existed side by side. It is not uncommon for people to develop gestures to replace words or phrases in contexts where speech is not possible or not permitted, such as in a television studio, but these are usually limited in scope and rarely develop into complete representations of an oral language. One of the most elaborated examples of this kind of auxiliary manual system is Warlpiri Sign Language, a complete signed mode of spoken Warlpiri which was developed by an Indigenous community in central Australia due to cultural proscriptions against speech. Sign language linguists usually make a distinction between these auxiliary sign languages and manually coded languages; the latter are specifically designed for use in Deaf education, and usually represent the written form of the language.

In seventh century England, Bede, a Benedictine monk, proposed a system for representing the letters of the Latin script on the fingers. Monastic sign languages used throughout medieval Europe used manual alphabets as well as signs, and were capable of representing a written language, if one had enough patience. Aside from the commonly understood rationale of observing "vows of silence", they also served as mnemonics (memory aids) for preachers. These manual alphabets began to be used to teach the deaf children of royalty in 17th century Spain, and can be seen as a kind of proto-manually coded language. Such alphabets are in widespread use today by signing deaf communities for representing words or phrases of the oral language used in their part of the world.

The earliest known attempt to develop a complete signed mode of a language which could be used to teach deaf children was by the Abbé de l'Épée, an educator from 18th century France. While the Deaf community already used a sign language (now known as Old French Sign Language), Épée thought it must be primitive, and set about designing a complete visual-gestural system to represent the concepts of religion and law that he wanted to impart to his pupils. His system of signes méthodiques (usually known in English as "Methodical Signs") was quite idiosyncratic, and although it wasn't a strict representation of French, its success laid the groundwork for the "signed oral languages" of today. The real proliferation of such systems occurred in the latter half of the 20th century, and by the 1980s, manually coded languages were the dominant form of communication used by teachers and interpreters in classrooms with deaf students in many parts of the world. Most sign language "interpreting" seen on television in the 1970s and 1980s would have in fact been a transliteration of an oral language into a manually coded language.

The emerging recognition of sign languages in recent times has curbed the growth of manually coded languages, and in many places, interpreting and educational services now favor the use of the natural sign languages of the Deaf community. In some parts of the world, MCLs continue to be developed and supported by state institutions; a contemporary example is Arabic Sign Language. Some MCL systems (such as the Paget Gorman Sign System) have survived by shifting their focus from deaf education to people with other kinds of communication needs.


The use of MCLs is controversial, and has been opposed since Épée's time by "oralists" who believe Deaf people should speak, lipread and use hearing aids rather than sign—and on the other side, by members of the ASL Community (see Deaf culture) who resist a wide or exclusive application of MCLs for both philosophical and practical reasons. English is not fully able to express the Deaf Experience, and just as written forms of spoken languages are useful but cumbersome for daily communication, these manual codes cannot supplant a natural Signed Language. Nevertheless elements of these systems have had some influence on deaf sign languages. (see Contact Sign).

Research in the U.S. has shown that manually coded English is usually applied incompletely and inconsistently in classrooms: Hearing teachers tend to "cut corners" by not signing word endings and "function words", most likely because they slow down the pace and distort the phrasing of the teacher's natural speech. The result is a kind of "Pidgin Sign English" which lacks the grammatical complexity of both English and American Sign Language.

Major approaches

There have been many different approaches to manually coding oral languages. Some consist of fingerspelling everything, a technique sometimes known in English as the "Rochester method" after Rochester School for the Deaf in New York where it was used from 1878 until the 1940s. While most MCLs are slower than spoken or sign languages, this method is especially so, and in modern times is generally considered not to be accessible to children. However, some deafblind people still communicate primarily using the Rochester Method. Most manually coded languages can accommodate Simultaneous Communication—that is, signing and speaking at the same time—although the natural pace of speech may need to be slowed down at times.

A unique system that was widespread in British deaf education from the 1960s to the 1980s is the Paget Gorman Sign System. Developed in Britain 1930s, it uses 37 basic signs and 21 standard hand postures to represent a large vocabulary of English words, word endings and verb tenses.

Signed oral languages

These systems ("Signed English", "Signed German" and so on) were the vehicle for the world-wide explosion of MCLs in deaf education in the second half of the 20th century, and are what is generally meant by the phrase "manually coded language" today. They aim to be a word-for-word representation of the written form of an oral language, and accordingly require the development of an enormous vocabulary. They usually achieve this by taking signs ("lexicon") from the local deaf sign language as a base, then adding specially-created signs for words and word endings that don't exist in the deaf sign language, often using "initializations", and filling in any gaps with fingerspelling. Thus "Signed English" in America (based on ASL) has a lexicon quite different from "Signed English" in Britain (based on BSL), as well as the Signed Englishes of Ireland, Australasia and South Africa. "Signing Exact English" (SEE2) was developed in the United States in 1969, has also been taught around the world, and is now used in deaf schools in Singapore, and taught in classes by the Singapore Association for the Deaf.[1]

Mouth–Hand Systems

Another widespread approach is to visually represent the phonemes (sounds) of an oral language, rather than using signs for the words. These systems are sometimes known as "Mouth Hand Systems" (MHS). An early example was developed in Denmark in 1903 by Georg Forchhammer.[2] Others include the Assisted Kinemes Alphabet (Belgium) and a Persian system developed in 1935 by Jabar Baghtcheban[3]—in addition to the most widespread MHS worldwide, Cued Speech. As the entire set of phonemes for an oral language is small (English has 35 to 45, depending on the dialect), an MHS is relatively easy to adapt for other languages. As of 2006, 60 languages or dialects have Cued Speech systems, though many are not in use or in marginal use.

Cued Speech can be seen as a manual supplement to lipreading. A small number of hand shapes (representing consonants) and locations near the mouth (representing vowels) differentiate between sounds not distinguishable from on the lips; in tonal languages, the inclination and movement of the hand follows the tone. When viewed together with lip patterns, the gestures render all phonemes of the oral language intelligible visually.

Cued Speech is not traditionally referred to as a manually coded language; although it was developed with the same aims as the signed oral languages, to improve English language literacy in Deaf children, it follows the sounds rather than the written form of the oral language. Thus, speakers with different accents will "cue" differently.

List of signed languages

Below are some of the signed systems that have been developed for various oral languages. They range from formal systems that encode the grammar of the oral language, to informal systems of using sign together with speech, to translating oral words one-by-one to sign.

See Australian Aboriginal sign languages for traditional manually coded languages such as Warlpiri Sign Language.

LanguageSigned encoding
Afrikaans Signed Afrikaans (signs of SASL)
Amharic Signed Amharic[4]
Arabic Signed Arabic
Mandarin Chinese Wenfa Shouyu 文法手語 ("Grammatical Sign Language", Signed Mandarin (Taiwan))[5]
Danish Signed Danish[6]
Dutch Nederlands met Gebaren, NmG (Signed Dutch, the Netherlands)
English (see Manually Coded English) The "Rochester Method"—(different manual alphabets are used in different regions). Signed English depends on signs from the local sign language.
- American English American Signed English; Seeing Essential English (SEE1); Signing Exact English (SEE2); Linguistics of Visual English (LOVE); Conceptually Accurate Signed English (CASE)
- Australian English Australasian Signed English
- British English British Signed English; Sign Supported Speech (SSS) or Sign Supported English (SSE) (speaking English with key-word signing); Paget Gorman Signed Speech (PGSS)
- Hiberno-English (Ireland) Irish Signed English, using signs from Irish Sign Language (Ireland) and Signed English, using signs from Northern Ireland Sign Language (Northern Ireland)
- Kenyan English Kenya Signed English
- South African English South African Signed English (using SASL signs)
Esperanto Signuno (proposed)
Finnish Signed Finnish[7]
French le Français Signé (Signed French, France)
- Belgian French Signed French (Belgium)
- Canadian French Signed French (Canada)
German Signed German - Lautsprachbegleitende Gebärden (LBG, "signs accompanying speech") and Lautsprachunterstützende Gebärden (LUG, "signs supporting speech")[8]
Hebrew Signed Hebrew (oral Hebrew accompanied by sign)[9]
Hindi-Urdu and other Indian languages Indian Signing System (ISS) (vocabulary taken from ISL, adapted to at least 6 Indian languages)
Indonesian Sistem Isyarat Bahasa Indonesia (SIBI, "Signed Indonesian")
Italian italiano segnato "Signed Italian" & italiano segnato esatto "Signed Exact Italian"
Japanese Signed Japanese, 日本語対応手話 (also known as Manually Coded Japanese, Simultaneous Methodic Signs)
Malay Bahasa Malaysia Kod Tangan (BMKT) (Manually Coded Malay)
Nepali Signed Nepali, also known as Sign-Supported Nepali
Norwegian Signed Norwegian[10]
Polish System Językowo-Migowy (SJM) (Signed Polish); Signing Exact Polish
Portuguese Signed Portuguese
Russian Signed Russian
Spanish Signed Spanish (Mexico, Spain, and presumably elsewhere; also Signed Catalan)
Swedish Tecknad svenska, ("Signed Swedish"), developed in the 1970s but now largely out of use
Urdu Signed Urdu (Pakistan)[11]
Xhosa Signed Xhosa (and similarly other official languages of South Africa)

See also


  1. Sign Language (Singapore Association or the Deaf website)
  2. Birch-Rasmussen, S. (1982). Mundhandsystemet. Copenhagen: Doves Center for Total Kommunikation.
    Reynolds, Brian Watkins (1980). Speechreading training related to the Danish mouth handsystem for adventitiously hearing impaired adults. Ann Arbor : U.M.I. 1980 - 145 p. Dissertation: Purdue Univ.
  3. Deaf Way II Presentation On Iranian Deaf Culture, by Abbas Ali Behmanesh
  4. Danish Sign Language at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  5. Finnish Sign Language at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  6. article on German Wikipedia about LBG and LUG
  7. Meir & Sandler, 2013, A Language in Space: The Story of Israeli Sign Language
  8. Norwegian Sign Language at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  9. "Indo-Pakistani Sign Language", Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics
  • ISO 639-2 codes for "signed oral languages" (e.g. Ethnologue Table C)
  • Cued Languages – list of languages and dialects to which Cued Speech has been adapted.
  • Sign Languages and Codes of the World by Region and by Name – Gallaudet University library online
  • Rehab Council of India
  • Kluwin, T. (1981). The grammaticality of manual representation of English in classroom settings. American Annals of the Deaf, 126, 417-421.
  • Marmor, G. & Pettito, L. (1979). Simultaneous communication in the classroom: How well is English grammar represented? Sign Language Studies, 23, 99-136.
  • Woodward, J. & Allen, T. (1988). Classroom use of artificial sign systems by teachers. Sign Language Studies, 61, 405-418.
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