For a while now, I’ve been wanting to officially have a post that demonstrates visually some differences between JSL and Signed English. After all, I am (frequently enough) asked: “How is Jamaican Sign Language different from regular sign language?”/”You mean sign language isn’t universal?” Most hearing people who know any sign at all tend to know Signed English, and often think that that is “regular” sign language, or, worse, that that is Jamaican Sign Language.
I’ve been procrastinating because of the effort that goes into making videos of a quality I’d be satisfied with. But, for the love of writing, and for the love of signing (and because I was Imperiused by Robyn, so I have zero choice in the matter), let us begin.
Keep in mind, though, that I know less Signed English than JSL. I never went to any class for it, and my learning of it has been by diffusion rather than active transport. The few SE signs I know, I learnt from friends who use SE, as they’re signing. I am mostly going under the assumption here that SE uses JSL signs for some things, since I don’t really know them so much. And without further ado:
(PS: The videos are captioned, so you might want to turn on the CC)
1. Copula (is, are, am)
In JSL, the copula is not expressed as another sign, but rather… I dunno how to express it, so I guess I’ll say it is “assumed”.
In Signed English, I’ve seen the ‘and’ sign used a lot in listing. JSL uses the non-dominant hand to ‘count’ the things being listed.
Signed English, as codified English, doesn’t make nearly as much use of such things are eyebrow movement, facial expressions, body movement, etc. Let me give you one example here of how important non-manuals (meaning signs or components of a sign that don’t use hands) are. Notice that in JSL, the only thing that changes is the eyebrow to change the meaning of the sentence, while in SE, the sentence changes around altogether.
In English, and thus SE, question words tend to be at the start of the sentence. In JSL, they tend to be at the end of the sentence. In fact, in some cases, the ‘what’ meaning can be completely non-manual.
5. Subject-Verb Agreement
In English, the structure of a verb clause is subject-verb-object; I eat cake. In JSL, it’s a lot more variable.
I almost forgot these. These are considered by some sign linguists proverbs. Not proverbs as in wise sayings; proverbs are to verbs as pronouns are to nouns. That means they express the action of a verb without actually signing the verb. Classifiers are considered critical to JSL and ASL fluency. But I don’t think they show up in signed English, really.
So, JSL is not Patwa, it’s not English, it’s separate from both, and yet connected to both because of the fact that it has contact with both every day. In fact, here’s a sign you won’t see in ASL (even though JSL comes from, and is considered a dialect of ASL), because the mouthing is directly from Patwa:
See the mouthing? “Huufa?”, the Jamaican question “whose?”
I hope that was all clear, and you understand it. 🙂