How Signed English and JSL are different

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”.

2. Listing

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.

3. Non-manuals

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.

4. Questions

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.

6. Classifiers

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. 🙂

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6 Responses to How Signed English and JSL are different

  1. Mizuu says:

    Yes, the videos were very clear and helpful.
    I would be largly interested in comparison between JSL and ASL, because SE is not a natural langauge, only gestures appended to spoken English words and grammar. But I guess, I can do that myself (although I am mostly intermediate in Japanese and Polish sign languages).
    BTW, subtitles for the first movie are broken for me, maybe that needs fixing.

    Thank you very much for the videos, they will come in handy soon enough. ^^!


    • kenliano says:

      Thanks, I fixed the captions in the first video.

      I’m still trying to figure out the differences between ASL and JSL; most of the lexical differences I thought I knew aren’t really big differences after all, since a lot of the signs are still used in JSL, but with added signs that have the same meaning. I don’t have much live exposure to ASL yet… What I have heard, though, is that JSL has a larger sign space than ASL.


  2. Pussin Boots (Mel) says:

    Hey Ken, the videos were nice, thank God u did put captions though, bcz u already know that i can sign but i cant understand what is being signed to me! (long story). In term of the differences between ASL and JSL i think u r right keniel, there isnt much differences! Slight differences but the meaning is basically the same, except local stuff. U know i keep confusing ASL with SE,… because i believe i would have learnt SE a while now, which is why i had problems learning the JSL… but then in my mind i thought i was actually learning ASL. So i am assuming that there is a big difference in ASL and SE.

    I am looking forward to seeing more stuff from u!


  3. hearingless says:

    Hey there! I watched each of these videos and you do great with signing. Very clear and understandable. I was able to understand most of what was being said since i sign with ASL. I thought it was rather interesting that you say that in English signing its Subject verb object since that’s how i sign although its said that its supposed to be Subject object verb. (that’s what i teach in my class) something else i teach seems to be a lot like JSL. That facial expression when asking questions such as “what?” or in really any situation is VERY important. That if we don’t use it then the subject becomes rather confusing to understand. This encourages me to post some of my own videos ^-^.


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