This detail of a painting from the 1400s shows Zechariah with a tablet, writing the name of his son, J-O-H-N.

This detail of a painting from the 1400s shows Zechariah with a tablet, writing the name of his son, J-O-H-N.

A children’s librarian and a student use sign language while reading “Are You My Mommy?” in West Virginia. (AP)

A children’s librarian and a student use sign language while reading “Are You My Mommy?” in West Virginia. (AP)

Jackie Cole was born deaf. She signs

Jackie Cole was born deaf. She signs "I love you," a common phrase in sign language. (AP)

A boy learns sign language in elementary school in Sarajevo, Bosnia. (AP)

A boy learns sign language in elementary school in Sarajevo, Bosnia. (AP)

A few words in Plains Indian Sign Language are illustrated in a newspaper from 1900.

A few words in Plains Indian Sign Language are illustrated in a newspaper from 1900.

Signing: We Need to Talk!

Posted: December 31, 2018

In Luke 1, God promises a baby to the elderly Elizabeth. Her husband, Zechariah, questions whether this is possible. God’s angel tells Zechariah he will be deaf and mute. When Elizabeth gives birth, Zechariah has to ask for a tablet so he can give the baby a name. The old priest spells out J-O-H-N. Immediately the elderly priest can hear and speak again.

What if Zechariah had remained deaf and mute for a longer time? He might have started spelling out words with his hands instead of with chalk. That’s known as fingerspelling. Each letter of the alphabet has its own finger position. It is a slower way to do sign language. But it is also accurate. Most people can learn it quickly. But fingerspelling is only part of sign language.

To communicate faster than fingerspelling, signs for whole words can be used. During the nine months he was deaf and mute, Zechariah and Elizabeth probably started using hand motions every day. Maybe they had signals for common things like “bed,” or “water,” and simple ideas like “wash,” or “more.” Certainly they found a way to say, “I love you.”

Zechariah was a priest. He had a “people job.” Priests always had things to tell and folks always had questions to ask. If he had remained deaf, Zechariah and the people would have come up with many more hand motions—their own simple sign language. Today, there are more than 300 variations of sign languages in the world. And most of them began and developed exactly like that: People needed to communicate with each other. So they found a way.

ASL (American Sign Language)
ASL is probably the most developed and complete sign language, and it has 250,000-500,000 users in the United States.

PSE (Pidgin Signed English)
Imagine if you had to pay for every letter in a message. You would drop “in between” words like “am, the, to,” and unnecessary endings like “-ed, -ment, -ing.” That’s the idea behind PSE. It’s ASL but shorter, quicker, and easier.

BSL (British Sign Language)
BSL grew out of schools for the deaf in late 1700s and early 1800s. It spread to Australia and New Zealand. Around 150,000 people use it today.

PISL (Plains Indian Sign Language)
Not all sign languages have to do with deafness. PISL was one of earliest sign languages. Tribes had many different languages. When Indians met on the American plains, they needed and came up with “hand talk” to communicate with each other.

ISL (Irish Sign Language)
Since many kids in that country were taught in Catholic schools for only boys or girls, two versions of ISL developed. You may know people who speak English, Spanish, or German. Can you imagine people speaking “boy” or “girl?”

 CSL (Chinese Sign Language)
CSL has the most users at 1-20 million. For about 50 years, people in China were told not to use sign language. Instead, they were taught lip reading. The first school for the deaf in China was started by missionaries from America.