In Jamaica, there are three major sign systems:
- Jamaican Sign Language
- Country Sign
- Signing Exact English/Manually Coded English
The first two are what are called natural languages: They developed from previous incarnations (JSL has been influenced by American Sign Language, British Sign Language, possibly Country Sign, English, and Patwa) or they came into being from naturally as a result of (Deaf) people being together, borne out of humanity’s innate instinct to give rise to language and culture (Country Sign probably came about that way).
Both evolved over time, driven by and driving culture. They have native users.
The third class is is a set of artificial systems: people deliberately sat down and decided to make it, taking components of ASL and decided the extent to which to represent and English; word for word or morpheme for morpheme: They used the manual alphabet system and imposed it on natural signs, changing the handshape, so that they referenced a letter (usually the first letter) of the English word or morpheme being represented.
In Signed English, “I” is signed at the chest, just like one of the JSL/ASL first person pronouns, but with the handshape of the manual letter I. “Group” follows the movement of signs such as family, but with the G handshape. And morphemes such as -ing, -ness, ment, etc, are represented as well; morphemes which do not exist in JSL or ASL. Plus, it follows English sentence structure, rather than JSL/ASL.
It may be hard to picture what exactly this means if you don’t have any background in signing. So here is a video that explains it a bit:
There are people who believe that natural sign languages should not be the language of the Deaf. After all, they have to exist in a hearing world, and (in Jamaica and much of the West), the hearing world, especially the professional hearing world, uses English to communicate. So, why not eradicate natural sign languages altogether, and have Deaf just use Signed English?
First of all, that is linguisticism: descrimination based on language. Why should English be considered more valuable than any other language? Just a few centuries ago, English wasn’t the revered language it is today. Despite how lauded they are today, Shakespeare’s plays were roots plays, and high-class members of society “would often wear masks to disguise their identity” (“Groundling“, Wikipedia).
Second, and perhaps most important of all, because Signed English systems are artificial, they are not suited to serve as the first language of a natural entity such as the human being. Natural languages develop over time through interactions between creatures with natural brains. They do not need to be taught to growing infants; language acquisition occurs to them as naturally as the development of their brains and bodies. An artificial system like SEE/MCE can never take full root in the language centres of the brain as natural, native languages.
Consider writing. It is artificial; unnatural. It has to be taught, and cannot be naturally acquired. It has to be taught by building on another language as a foundation. To me, Signed English systems are similar; they do, arguably, have their place, but to make them the foundation, the way deaf people see and interact with the world, is an injustice.
Sign Languages exist naturally in very different parameters from spoken languages. They make use of space. Forcing signing to follow spoken language is extremely limiting; even to be as a native Jamaican English/Patwa user, it feels like bondage.
Yes, the Deaf/deaf would benefit and do benefit from having a grasp of English in this world. But that should not be at the expense of their natural language. We humans need first-language competence and understanding in one language in order to learn another. Deaf people I know who have Signed English as their first “language” have not only poor JSL, but poor English, too. (Yes, English!)
To stand in the way of a Deaf person’s right to a natural language is audism.
Plain and simple.