Signed Languages are languages which primarily function non-verbally through visual signals, generally invented for the use of the deaf to communicate. As the name indicates, the primary means of communication is generally signs made with the hands in front of the body. However, most sign languages include facial expressions and some, such as Japanese Sign Language, include mouthing as part of their mechanics. It is important to recognize that while almost every community with a spoken language also has a signed language, the signed language used is related more to the geographical region than to the spoken language. For example, English is the primary language of the United States, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand, but the US and Canada use ASL note , the UK uses BSL, and Australia and New Zealand use AUSLAN and NZSL respectively - all related languages but with distinct signs and grammar.
One important aspect of Signed Languages is that they are, as a rule, fully-formed languages with their own grammar and words. They are not pantomime nor do they necessarily follow the grammar of the spoken/verbal language of the region. Some signs are iconic, or resemble what they speak of, much like how some spoken words are onomatopoeic, but most signs are abstractions of iconic signs or completely original. The grammar itself frequently differs greatly in part due to the spatial aspects of signs and the ability to convey information non-sequentially. For example, within ASL, it is common to establish specific people in a conversation at spatial locations and later use signs moving from location to the other rather than having to reestablish identities or use pronouns. Similarly, since both hands and the face can be used, multiple pieces of information can be encoded into a single sign. For example, a sentence like "I drove from Jane to John and I enjoyed it" can be conveyed in a single sign if Jane and John have already been previously established in the conversation. And, before you ask, most signs convey individual words. There is finger-spelling, but it's inefficient (especially with big words like "inefficient"), and not all signers are necessarily fluent in it because it requires them to depict, letter by letter, words that are not from their native language — specifically, words from the spoken/verbal language of the region.
It is worth noting that Signed Language, while non-verbal, is not necessarily quiet. Even deaf users typically make sounds while signing and it is not infrequent for a very low-pitched grunt to be used to catch someone's attention via the vibrations.
As an anthropological note, it is worth considering that many communities and cultures define themselves by their language, and the deaf are no exception. The word "Deaf" is often capitalized when indicating the non-hearing culture, or membership of same. Though there are always exceptions, most Deaf individuals do not consider their lack of hearing to be a drawback and are proud of the community their condition allows them access to.
Signed Language has nothing to do with the trope of Talking with Signs which involves characters communicating via written signs. It is related to Hand Signals, which range from pantomime to a reduced vocabulary, sometimes with a sparse grammar. Especially within fantasy works, it is not uncommon to have races or nations where Hand Signals have evolved into a Signed Language, typically to provide a method to communicate in secrecy.
In real life, some professional fields rely somewhat heavily on signed language even if nobody in a particular project is deaf. One such field that relies on Hand Signals and signed languages in varying combinations, is professional diving, since one can't exactly speak out loud when wearing SCUBA gear.
The following works involve Signed Language as a significant aspect of the plot:
- One of Gangsta's main characters is a deaf Twilight named Nicolas Brown who primarily communicates with his Heterosexual Life-Partner Worick and friends using sign language. Note that Nic can speak, he just hates to do so because it's tiring and comes off ... not quite right.
- Koe no Katachi is about a boy named Shouya who bullied a hearing-impaired girl named Shouko in elementary school and his attempts to reconcile with her in high school. It's actually sponsored by the Japanese Federation of the Deaf and features accurate Japanese Sign Language.
- The Bronze Age Teen Titans version of Jericho communicated only in sign language (his vocal cords had been cut by his father's enemies). If he spoke at all, it was because he was possessing someone. Marv Wolfman also prohibited the use of thought bubbles when writing him in the comic, leading George Perez to get creative when displaying hand gestures. This trait is carried over into his animated appearances.
- Hawkeye is deaf in one ear and while he can communicate normally he is also fluent in ASL. In fact, Deadpool has spoken to him in ASL before.
- Ponies, of course, don't naturally have the digits for the complex movements required of human sign languages, so what is a pony who cannot speak, for whatever reason, do? In The Things Tavi Says, they have Blank Speak, introduced in the chapter called "Signing Things", in which a pony takes straws, pens, or other objects of the like in a magical field or pair of hooves. DJ Pon-3 uses it when communicating something too lengthy for writing, which, in turn, is what she does when something is too lengthy for simple gestures. Like real-life signed languages, there are speech-capable ponies who know it. DJ Capricorn is the first pony in the story to use it. Twilight starts out more along the lines of My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels, but gets better.
- In the Steven Universe fic Whispers on the Wind, Pearls' racial language is entirely gesture-based. Because many Pearls are forbidden to communicate verbally, this sign language (and its future evolution into transferrable Genetic Memory) forms the backbone of their culture.
- Within the Madagascar series are a pair of chimps called Mason and Phil. Phil can't speak normally and relies on Mason to translate for him. Of course, the ASL spoken by Phil is entirely accurate, down to the facial expressions, but what Phil often says is a bit more complicated than what Mason translates, leading to a few bonuses to those who know ASL.
- All of the undersea settlers in Dark Life know sign language, because the liquid oxygen substitute they use when diving keeps them from talking out loud.
- In What Women Want, there's a moment when Nick Marshall believes he has stopped hearing women's thoughts. Then, he sees two deaf women using signed language and realizes he can hear what they're saying/thinking.
- Deafula is about a deaf vampire. The film is completely performed in sign language, with no spoken dialog. And yes, it really exists.
- The Crucible, a 2011 Korean film based on the true story of a sex abuse scandal at a school for the hearing-impaired, naturally has a great deal of subtitled KSL (Korean Sign Language).
- Shows up in Shuttle where it's a Chekhov's Skill for the protagonist, used to communicate her kidnapping via a security camera in a convenience store.
- In Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, sign language is the main method of communication among apes.
- In Beyond The Silence (Jenseits Der Stille), the main character's parents are both deaf and hence there is a lot of sign language in the movie.
- The last scene of All About Steve features a group of deaf children stuck in a mine shaft. The sign language is accurate ASL.
- Films featuring Marlee Matlin frequently feature ASL due to her real-life disability such as:
- Children of a Lesser God (1986) - With the exception of one line in English, Marlee Matlin gives her Oscar-winning performance entirely in American Sign Language. It isn't subtitled; instead, William Hurt's character interprets to himself, out loud for the audience's benefit. When he doesn't, Matlin's expressiveness speaks for itself.
- 4Closed (2003) - The sign language does not play a major role plotwise, but is used throughout the movie as simply something that is part of the family's day-to-day life.
- The Tribe (2014) is set in a boarding school for deaf children and is performed completely in Ukrainian Sign Language, a dialect of Russian Sign Language note .
- Speed 2 has a deaf girl as a character in the movie, which causes problems when the ship is hijacked as she can't hear the alarm, and while she does speak verbally with the aid of lip-reading she has a conversation with Alex in ASL at dinner to Annie's surprise.
Alex: I wanted to learn a new language.
- John Wick: Chapter 2 has a Silent Snarker Silent Antagonist mute assassin named Ares who primarily communicates via ASL. The titular protagonist also shows proficiency in ASL so you have the rare instance of two characters having Snark-to-Snark Combat during tense moments entirely through ASL. The use of signed language also means stylized subtitles prop up every time they use ASL so non-ASL-using audiences know what they're saying.
- The Shape of Water: Elisa is mute, and thus uses real-life American Sign Language to communicate. She also teaches the fish person how to sign, since he can't physically talk either.
- A Quiet Place: The family members have to communicate entirely in sign language in order to avoid attracting the attention of a monster that is attracted to sound.
- The Silent Child: A social worker starts teaching a deaf child how to sign, but runs into resistance from the child's self-centered mother.
- The protagonist of Baby Driver has a deaf foster father and, besides a few token spoken words, communicates with him via sign language. The actor who plays the foster father, C.J. Jones, is deaf in real life and Ansel Elgort, who plays the titular Baby, genuinely learned sign language to communicate with him.
- Forgotten Realms:
- The Drow hand code in R.A. Salvatore's novels (the ones with Drizzt Do'Urden). Drow elves are all taught a language composed entirely of hand signals. Any two Drow can communicate in this way in complete silence as long as they can see one another. And in complete darkness, because of their infravision.
- Some surface Elves in Forgotten Realms, according to Return of the Archwizards, have "finger talk". As opposed to at least part-"hieroglyphical" Drow signs, it's alphabetical language and at least to some degree useable with human hands.
- The Finder's Stone trilogy mentioned thieves' hand cant. Saurials can't speak aloud, so it came in handy, teaching a paladin to understand it.
- The Clan in the Earth's Children communicate primarily by sign language and Body Language, using vocal noises only for names (based on a now-disproved theory that Neandertals had less-capable vocal cords than do Homo sapiens and could not have supported a fully-verbal language). Visual miscommunication is Played for Drama several times in Clan of the Cave Bear, with The Resenter always turning away before someone compliments him.
- The Drasnian secret language, of the Belgariad, by David Eddings. All Drasnians involved in the intelligence community (which apparently means "all of them") are taught a language similar to the Drow version above. On more than one occasion, two such speakers converse verbally about something unimportant while having a completely separate discussion with their hands. The language is specific enough that a speaker can gesture with a recognizably outlandish "accent": when Garion first learns it, Silk notes that his initial use of it is a bit off due to learning it in a cold environment (with finger joints frozen).
- Verghastite, and later some Tanith, members of Gaunt's Ghosts that have been deafened by artillery fire communicate with a form of sign language.
- In one of the Xanth stories, two characters learn American Sign Language as a way to communicate because a Xanthian girl cannot speak any known Mundane language, and the American doesn't know the language of Xanth. They later talk to a deaf man on the bus, because he saw them signing and thought they were deaf, initiating a conversation in American Sign Language.
- In The Wheel of Time, the Aiel have a limited form of "handtalk", with the Maidens of the Spear expanding it into a more complete language.
- In Dune multiple characters use hand signals to give orders to their subordinates. In fact, there are entire sign languages developed separately by both the Atreides and the Harkonnens, as well as even more subtle ones developed by the Bene Gesserit, that allow them to communicate irrelevant information verbally and important stuff with their hands, making sure that even if they are overheard, the enemy won't learn anything.
- In Mirror Friend Mirror Foe, a ninja family is not only trained in that... They can communicate that way while having a verbal conversation on a totally unrelated matter.
- The giant raccoons in Architect of Sleep use sign language to communicate due to having never developed a complicated enough vocal apparatus to support a spoken language. They do punctuate their signs with trills and chirps, though.
- The Isitri from the Star Trek novel Troublesome Minds by Dave Galanter. They communicate by a mixture of telepathy and sign language, and have no spoken language (they have poor hearing, with many being deaf, and their throats and mouths aren't configured for verbal speech). The sign language is used by the few non-telepathic Isitri, and by all Isitri to communicate with aliens.
- The telepathic treecats in Honor Harrington communicate with humans via sign language derived from ASL (modified for the treecat's Four-Fingered Hands), although they can understand spoken word fine.
- The crypt workers in the Sword of Truth's People's Palace. Darken Rahl had their tongues cut out so they wouldn't speak ill of his father, so they developed one of these. Only their boss understands them at all, and poorly at that. He still has his tongue, primarily for this reason. Cara begins to follow what they mean after a lengthy "conversation". When they get their tongues magically restored, they never stop talking. It has less Unfortunate Implications than one might imagine, because these people were all mute against their will, and had no support structure like actual deaf and mute communities, so they would be less inclined to stay mute.
- The Heralds of the Heralds of Valdemar series not only have a hand-based signed language, but also a form of "Hand Signals" involving apparently playing footsie under the table for when they wish to communicate in secret.
- In the Sime Gen world, Householders at a Gen auction will hold hands, the Sime wrapping tentacles around their hands as well, and communicate via subtle pressures and shifts in contact. (There's also a great deal of non-verbal information communicated via manipulating nagers.)
- The second book in A.C. Crispin's StarBridge series deals with a species of crane-like aliens who communicate primarily in sign; vocalization is used only as emphasis or warning...and their voices are so loud and piercing that they do physical damage to fragile human eardrums. The protagonist is a deaf cultural interpreter who is brought in to live with them, meaning that most of the book's dialogue is in sign.
- In PartnerShip, Blaize learns that the native Anglians on the planet he's tending can communicate in sign language, and are reasonably intelligent once they learn they can communicate with humans.
- Joanne Greenberg's novel In This Sign is about a deaf couple navigating everyday life in the hearing world from the 1920s to the late 60s. Sign language is extensively discussed including the fact that it has many nuances and even accents.
- Jane Yolen's The Mermaid's Three Wisdoms has a little mermaid banished from the sea and befriended by a hearing-impaired child who is ashamed of her deafness. She hates sign language, but the mermaid is mute, so it's the only way they can communicate. The three wisdoms are: "have patience, like the sea; move with the rhythm of life around you; and know that all things touch all others."
- In the future setting of The Princes of the Air, there's a sign language used to give commands to androids, though most people regard it as an obsolete historical curiosity now that androids come equipped with the ability to understand commands spoken in natural language. All androids are still made to understand it, though, in case of situations where speech would be difficult (and in fact are programmed to prioritize signed commands over spoken commands, as they're less susceptible to being misinterpreted), and use it for preference to communicate among themselves. The protagonist learns the sign language in college for an easy course credit, and it becomes unexpectedly useful later on.
- Margalit Fox's nonfiction book, Talking Hands, tells the tale of visiting Al-Sayyid, a remote Arabic town with its own sign language due to the high rate of deafness in the community. About half of the book is explaining the history of why it took so long to realize sign language is language.
- An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Loud As A Whisper", featured Deaf actor Howie Seago performing the role of Riva, a mute character who in the context of the story used an esoteric form of gestural communication known only to him and a few others. In reality, Seago was using his native American Sign Language. When Riva's interpreters were killed, Commander Data had to quickly learn the language and serve as Riva's interpreter. Unfortunately, while Brent Spiner is a wonderful actor, his attempts at signing were hilariously bad, and he was effectively speaking nonsense for the couple of brief moments when Data was actually shown signing on camera. It's a good thing, then, that the majority of the time, Data simply filled the role of voice interpreter.
- Beauty and the Beast has a deaf character who had grown up in the tunnels in "An Impossible Silence" and "Sticks and Stones" who communicated through ASL. The second episode was groundbreaking in that there were several scenes where deaf characters communicated in on-screen silence, with no voiceover or even background music, something the deaf actors involved fought hard for, not wanting someone else's voice to overshadow their own "voices".
- C Hi Ps: they meet a deaf woman and learn sign language just in time to use it during a chase scene when they were far away from each other and there was construction noise nearby; then they never used it again.
- Shows up a lot in NCIS as Abby and Gibbs both know ASL. (Abby's adoptive parents were both deaf.) Actually turns up again NCIS: Los Angeles when Abby is kidnapped and uses ASL to warn the local team about the room she's in.
- The Korean Drama Can You Hear My Heart? centers around several deaf individuals.
- Switched at Birth stars a deaf high-schooler and the girl she was switched-at-birth with. Basically all of the cast uses American Sign Language on a regular basis, though there is a clear difference in skill between the (relatively large number of) deaf actors and the speaking ones.
- Sesame Street included Linda, a deaf woman who communicated entirely in American Sign Language during the course of the series.
- The BBC has a magazine show for deaf people called See Hear, with presenters and interviewees using British Sign Language throughout. Until fairly recently, the BBC would also repeat various prime-time shows in the early hours of the morning with an in-vision sign language interpreter for use as a teaching aid.
- Morning programming on some BBC channels is comprised of repeats with an in-vision sign language interpreter to the side of the screen. There are also signed broadcasts throughout the day on the dedicated news channel.
- This still happens on Cbeebies, the morning's shows are repeated from 3 til 5 with sign language.
- There's also Something Special on Cbeebies, which is about teaching children Makaton (a simplified sign language, distinct from BSL).
- A children's show that aired in the late 90s/early 2000s called What's Your Sign? had one hearing host and one deaf host, and everything spoken was also said in ASL, to help teach kids sign language.
- There's also public television's 2006-2008 Signing Time! and a number of programs for children and adults on local and community access TV beginning in the early 1970s.
- Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye was about a deaf detective and included at least one other deaf character almost every episode.
- In the 2009 CBBC 11 part series My Almost Famous Family youngest child Martha is deaf and what ever she 'says' appears on the screen, the other members of the family sign when speaking to her and when there's something they want her to 'hear' when she's in the room.
- The West Wing featured deaf pollster Joey Lucas (played by Marlee Matlin), as a recurring character, always accompanied by her interpreter Kenny. This led to copious amounts of ASL flying around, occasionally spreading to main characters:
Sam: Joey puts together a decent snapshot.
Lisa: Which one's Joey?
Sam: Kenny, can we get Joey a second?
Kenny: [signs] Can you come over for a second?
Joey: [signs] Just a minute, please.
Sam: [signs] Thank you.
Lisa: When did you pick that up??
Sam: I just said "thanks"... could he go easy with the pictures?
- Fargo features deaf hitman Mr. Wrench (played by deaf actor Russell Harvard) and his interpreter/partner Mr. Numbers. The two communicate in mostly unsubtitled ASL, leaving a lot of jokes and arguments exclusively for people who know ASL.
- Al Jazeera Arabic has an in-vision (Arabic) Sign Language interpreter on some of its broadcasts. Since (given that Al Jazeera serves the Middle East) they tend to report on wars a lot, even non-deaf viewers of Al Jazeera Arabic can give a decent imitation of the Arabic sign for "air strikes."
- ER has Peter Benton, whose son Reese (played by deaf actor Matthew Watkins) is deaf. Peter initially looks into surgeries and other methods to give Reese a chance to hear, but later accepts it and begins to learn Sign.
- The Doctor Who story "Under the Lake"/"Before the Flood" has a deaf UNIT officer called Cass, who was played by genuinely deaf actor Sophie Stone and communicates entirely in sign language, although she can also read lips, which becomes a plot point. This caused a brief Cross-Cultural Kerfluffle, when some American viewers accused the actors of "just waving their hands around" instead of using real sign language, not knowing that British Sign Language is a different language to America Sign Language and they are not mutually comprehensible.
- In Inhumans, Black Bolt has an incredibly destructive voice so he communicates with a unique sign language he developed with his wife, Medusa. This causes issues when they're separated during the first part of the series, as it means he loses his interpreter. Made-up signs were used on the grounds that, as he lives on an isolated moon colony, he never would have had a chance to learn any Earth sign languages. His actor Anson Mount put extra effort into making sure his signs were valid in their own right and didn't overlap with ASL, and he expressed interest in expanding them into a fully-developed fictional language.
- In the "Return of the Fighting 69th" episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Buck encounters a young deaf girl named Alicia, being held as a slave on an asteroid by space pirates. Showing a previously unknown ability to use ASL, Buck communicates with her to help with his and Wilma's escape after they're captured.
- In the music video for Savage Garden's "Crash and Burn," Darren Hays sings and signs the final verse.
- Parts of Laurie Anderson's video for "O Superman" have Anderson signing the lyrics in the corner of the screen.
- "Weird Al" Yankovic's video for "Dare To Be Stupid" has a woman in the corner of the screen signing the lyrics "It's like spitting on a fish / It's like barking up a tree".
- In the raw footage of Donny Osmond's appearance in Al's video for "White and Nerdy", Osmond can be seen fingerspelling when the phrase "ROTFLOL" comes up in the lyrics; Osmond's two oldest brothers are deaf and one of his nephews is hard of hearing.
- And for People who understand BSL, the video for Faithless' God is a DJ is pretty much sung and signed by Maxi Jazz. Only one small part with an argument being signed is not a direct translation.
- Florent Pagny's Deliberately Monochrome video for "Savoir Aimer" (Know How to Love), consists of a single shot of him signing the lyrics of the song.
- UK band Red Box was lauded in the mid-'80s for their video for "Lean On Me (Ah-Li-Ayo)," which featured a BSL interpreter on the lower right side of the screen.
- A running gag in the filk music of Tom Smith and others at conventions is to have a sign language interpreter, generally the talented Judi Miller, try to interpret songs on the fly.
- The American Author's song "Pride" has a music video featuring deaf actress Sandra Mae Frank interpreting most of the song in ASL.
- Ingrid Michaelson released an alternate music video for Hell No, with herself and a Deaf/hard-of-hearing cast: Josh Castille, Miles Barbee, Daniel Durant, Treshelle Edmond, and Ren, signing the song. It was directed by (hearing) Michael Arden, who had worked with the aforementioned actors and actresses for the 2015/2016 English/ASL revival of Spring Awakening in Los Angeles and on Broadway.
- Warhammer 40,000:
- The Sisters of Silence from use hand signals to communicate, one form for normal conversation and one for the battlefield.
- Averted with the gretchin who crew ork artillery and eventually go deaf. They do use sign language... but it's a very limited one, as there are only so many signs a gretchin can carry.
- Dungeons & Dragons.
- The Drow have a language of hand signs in their original appearance. The fluff concerning it is to allow communicating silently in the Underdark while sneaking on their enemies.
- Forgotten Realms sourcebook on Harpers also mentioned their own "silent code" of gestures and expressions.
- 1st Edition had alignment languages, which included special signals and gestures.
- Star Wars: Saga Edition:
- It has hand signals in one splatbook handled elegantly as a language. Well worth the cost, if you're playing that sort of campaign.
- The RPGs also originated the idea that twi'leks would use their "lekku" (long, semi-mobile "head-tails") to communicate with one another in secret. In some sources, bothans could do something similar by rippling their fur in various patterns — unsurprisingly, both species had long associations with crime and/or espionage and would use their sign languages as a kind of subtle Spy Speak.
- Paranoia has Twitchtalk for conversing silently to comrades. It works as well as everything else in this setting.
- In Gene Storm, not all mutants have vocal cords so "Finger Talk" is something of a wasteland Common Tongue.
- Sign, by Thorny Games, is an educational card-game meant to immerse players in the world of Nicaraguan Sign Language, a pidgin turned language that emerged when 50 deaf children from various backgrounds were brought together at a school and forced to figure out how to communicate.
- Deaf West Theatre is a Los Angeles based company that aims to give exposure to deaf performers and present both original and adapted works in ASL. Their most popular and notable accomplishment is the 2015 revival of Spring Awakening, which used the presence of deaf characters to augment the play's themes of miscommunication and alienation. It also incorporated the policies for the deaf enacted in education at the time, such as forbidding sign language and forcing the students to speak. The play was eventually moved to Broadway, and successfully gained a nomination for a Tony Award as well.
- Within Phantom Brave, Castille realizes that Putties are intelligent, but unable to speak, and teaches one sign language to communicate.
- That Deaf Guy is all about the day-to-day life of a deaf man, his translator wife, and their CODA (Child Of Deaf Adult) son. Aspects of signed language and Deaf culture are central conceits.
- Runewriters gives us Tarri, The Heart of the party, who's deaf and communicates in a language represented as ASL.
- One minor character in Girls with Slingshots is a deaf woman named Melody. She frequently communicates with signs, and it's used for Bilingual Bonus at one point.
- The Order of the Stick being a D&D-based webcomic, the Drow signed language crops up once, used by Tarquin to communicate with a deafened ZZ'dtri. The "Common Drow Hand Signs"◊ bonus art parody the concept.
- Leif & Thorn has the Embassy staff communicate with hand signals when they want it to go unnoticed. Leif thinks of it as "servants' code", but when he encounters an actual deaf person it turns out they can communicate fluently. (The cast page refers to it as Sønheim Sign.)
- In the SCP Foundation mythos, SCP-085, "Hand-Drawn Cassy", is effectively mute due to being an albeit animate drawing. The only other way she can communicate is through Speech Bubbles in comic book mediums.
- In The Saga of Tuck, Tuck is fluent in ASL because he had communication problems when he was a child, so his family and Mike learned it as well. This becomes very handy to secretly talk in plain sight without listeners and to befriend a deaf girl in Seasons.
- Whateley Universe:
- At the Whateley Academy, signed language is used by a significant subset of the student population to deal with people whose mutations leave them unable to speak, or unable to speak safely, although the details are often glossed over.
- It is explained that Razorback signs in both AUSLAN and ASL, because he learned the former first, and that he's had to make some adjustments to both because of his saurian digits.
- In The Little Mermaid episode, "When You Wish Upon a Starfish", Ariel meets a deaf mermaid girl named Gabriella who speaks with signed language while her octopus friend interprets for her.
- The Smurfs: Laconia the wood elf is deaf and communicates in signed language.
- The Dragon Prince: Ezran and Callum's aunt, Amaya is deaf and communicates through sign, while her lieutenant Gren interprets for her.