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A short paper on indigenous African Sign Languages
Indigenous African Sign Languages
Mary Edward
(University of Brighton, UK)
Anytime I speak about my research to non-linguists, I have had to explain that
Ghanaian Sign Language (GSL) and Adamorobe Sign Language are different sign languages
used in Ghana. Sign languages have been shown to exhibit typological differences at distinct
levels of linguistic analysis. Linguistic typological study is aimed at classifying different
languages according to their properties and structure. One typological classification being
urban sign languages and rural sign languages (significant part of this post is culled from
Edward (Forthcoming).
Typologically, sign languages are classified as urban and rural sign languages. Urban
sign languages are the language of the Deaf community in urban Africa (and also the
language for Deaf education). Rural (village) sign language used only in local communities.
Urban sign languages are used by deaf dominant community in Africa (and few hearing
signers such as interpreters, teachers of the Deaf, Child of Deaf Adult (CODA) and
Sibling/Spouse of Deaf Adult (SODA). Rural sign languages are mostly used by both deaf
and hearing signers. Urban sign languages have wider domains of use (education, media,
formal and informal deaf-deaf communications); rural sign languages have more limited
usage and signers sometimes borrow from the urban sign languages to fill lexical gaps. Most
urban sign languages in Africa started as a language of education within the Deaf community,
bringing deaf individuals together into schools for the Deaf, pioneered by Andrew Foster. On
the other hands, the rural sign languages emerged as the result of a high incidence of deafness
and thus the presence of a consolidated population of Deaf people in local communities.
This is published on my blog:
Indigenous African Sign Languages
Native signers of Adamorobe Sign Language (Ghana)
We shall consider indigenous African sign languages. First, sign languages are the
indigenous languages of the Deaf communities across the world. However, in Africa, we can
make distinction between indigenous African sign languages and foreign-based African sign
languages. I refer to indigenous African sign languages as the local sign languages used in the
communities across Africa. On the other hand, foreign-based African sign languages have
close connections with other (foreign) sign languages through education or colonialization
(e.g. Ghanaian Sign Language and American Sign Language). Most indigenous sign
languages in Africa are linked to the presence of genetic deafness in the communities and
these languages are used by both deaf and hearing members of the communities in which
these languages are used. One of such is the Adamorobe Sign Language (AdaSL).
Indigenous African Sign Languages
AdaSL is an indigenous village sign language used in Adamorobe community in the
Eastern Region of Ghana. AdaSL is believed to have existed as far back as 1733 as a
language used by both hearing and deaf people in Adamorobe (Okyere & Addo , 1994). The
community is noted for its unusually high incidence of hereditary deafness: an estimated
1.3% of the total population. The reduction is attributed to the law instituted by their former
chief that prevented marriage between two deaf people (Nyst, 2007; Kusters, 2012a) and the
migration of different people into the community (Edward, 2018). Nyst stated that “former
chief Nana Kwaakwa Asiampong II prohibited marriage between two deaf persons(Nyst,
2007, p. 28). AdaSL is currently used by 40 deaf people (adults and youngsters) in a
community of about 3000 people representing 1.3% of the total population. In a report by
Miles (2004; 2005), deaf Adamorobeans were the first substantial historical group of African
people known to have used a formal sign language and the record dated as far back as the 18th
century. The history of AdaSL is scattered in stories that are either mythical or without
historical records (Nyst, 2007; Kusters, 2012a; Kusters, 2012b; Okyere & Addo , 1994). The
formal discovery of the coexistence of deaf and hearing people in Adamorobe is very recent
(in the 1970s). This may account for the reason the national archives may not have prior
information about AdaSL before the 1970s. Earlier research done in Adamorobe discovered
that almost everybody in the village could communicate in the sign language (Frishberg,
1987). However, my current visits to the community indicates a decline in the numbers of
hearing signers. There are currently more hearing people who do not communicate in AdaSL
in Adamorobe due to migration and other socioeconomic factors (Edward, 2018).
A language’s ability to thrive is largely dependent on the users of the language and its
domains of use. The constant use of a language will ensure the language’s survival, whereas
the gradual decline in the use of a language will also mark the language as a possible
candidate for endangerment. In every society, speakers/signers who are proud to use their
languages try their best to preserve it and avoid possible encroachment that will lead to the
loss of interest in using the language. Aside from linguists, social anthropologists have also
discovered several indigenous sign languages that were previously unheard of and remained
local legacies. For example, the recent discovery of Magajingari Sign Language (MgSL) in
Magajingari community in Kaduna North in Nigeria (Asonye & Edward, Forthcoming). Just
like spoken language research, there is the tendency for some sign languages to receive more
attention than others. Sign languages used in homes and villages stand the risk of
endangerment because of the following reasons: lack of users, gradual decline in their
Indigenous African Sign Languages
domains of use, lack of documentation, etc. For most moribund sign languages in the world
there is a dearth of linguistic research and language revitalisation programmes (Asonye, et al.,
2020). The lack of academic research on several indigenous African sign languages has made
it difficult to compare these sign languages.
Asonye, E., Edward, M. & Asonye, E. E., 2020. Linguistic genocide against development of signed
languages in Africa. In: African Languages in Time and Space: A Festschrift in Honour of Professor
Akinbiyi Akinlabi @ 60! (. s.l.:s.n., pp. 337-359.
Asonye, E. & Edward, M., Forthcoming. 10. Deaf Education and signed language situation in Ghana
and Nigeria: Six Decades after Andrew Foster. In: Y. N. O. a. E. M. Marooney, ed. Signed languages,
interpreting, and the Deaf Community in Ghana. s.l.:s.n.
Edward, M., 2015. We speak with our hands and voices: Iconicity in Adamorobe Sign Language and
Akuapem Twi (ideophones). Bergen: Upublished MPhil thesis, University of Bergen, Norway.
Edward, M., 2018. Behind the veil: The impact of deafness on rural livelihoods in Ghana (Case study
of a Deaf couple in Adamorobe). Lancaster University Ghana Journal of Disability (LUGJD),
Volume 1.
Edward, M. & Akanlig-Pare, G., forthcoming. Societal Perception of Hearing Impairment in Ghana:
A Report on Adamorobe. Lancaster University Ghana Journal of Disability (LUGJD), Volume 2.
Edward, M., Forthcoming. Iconicity as a pervasive force in language: Evidence from Ghanaian Sign
Language and Adamorobe Sign Language. PhD Dissertation ed. Brighton: University of Brighton,
Doctoral College.
Edward, M., forthcoming. Signing out: Linguistic contact and possible endangerment of the
Adamorobe Sign Language. In: R. Graham, ed. Developing Languages in Africa. s.l.:Cambridge
Scholars Publishers.
Frishberg, N., 1987. Ghanaian sign language. Gallaudet encyclopedia of deaf people and deafness,
Volume 3, pp. 778-79.
Kusters, A., 2011. Ghanaian signs are soft and Adamorobe signs are hard: Language use and language
attitudes in Adamorobe. Applied Sign Linguistics Symposium.
Kusters, A., 2012a. “The Gong Gong Was Beaten”—Adamorobe: A “Deaf Village” in Ghana and Its
Marriage Prohibition for Deaf Partners. Sustainability, 4(10), pp. 2765-2784.
Kusters, A., 2012b. Adamorobe: A demographic, sociolinguistic and sociocultural profile. Sign
languages in village communities: Anthropological and linguistic insights, pp. 347-352.
Kusters, A., 2014b. Language ideologies in the shared signing community of Adamorobe. Language
in Society,, 43(2), pp. 139-158.
Kusters, A., 2019. One Village, Two Sign Languages: Qualia, Intergenerational Relationships and the
Language Ideological Assemblage in Adamorobe, Ghana. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 0(0),
pp. 1-20.
Indigenous African Sign Languages
Miles, M., 2004. Locating deaf people, gesture and sign in African histories, 1450s1950s. Disability
& Society , 19(5), pp. 531-545.
Miles, M., 2005. Deaf People Living and Communicating in African Histories, c. 960s - 1960s.
Independent Living Institute.
Nyst, V. A. S., 2007. A Descriptive analysis of the Adamorobe Sign Language (Ghana). Amsterdam:
Doctoral Dissertation, University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Humanities..
Okyere , A. D. & Addo , M., 1994. Deaf Culture in Ghana. In: E. e. al, ed. The Deaf Way;
Perspectives from the International Conference on the Deaf Culture. Washington DC: Gallaudet
University Press.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Education for Deaf people in Ghana and Nigeria were pioneered by the late Dr Andrew Foster, an African-American Deaf graduate of Gallaudet University in the late 1950’s. Beginning in 1957 in Ghana, and its subsequent expansion to other African countries including Nigeria, Foster led the establishment of 31 schools for Deaf people in 13 African countries (Kiyaga & Moores, 2003). In this chapter, we discuss the current state of education for Deaf people in Ghana and Nigeria, signed language use, the documentation of indigenous signed language, and Deaf livelihoods. We argue that creating an enabling environment for Deaf education, introducing national policies and laws that support Deaf education and signed language use will improve the standards for Deaf education in Ghana and Nigeria. Further, we suggest that signed language documentation and early detection of hearing loss will influence positive advancement of Deaf education and signed language in the countries.
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The UN 1948 Convention on Linguistic Genocide did not expressly consider the gradual but continuous suppression of minority languages and cultures by a superior one and/or the authorities, which has been the situation with, not just the spoken languages as has been emphasized in literature, but the signed languages in Africa. However, the Convention’s definition of ‘genocide’ includes “…destroying in whole or part, or of preventing preservation or development.” Significant number of African signed languages are said to have originated from American Sign Language ASL (Asonye, 2016), a few others have their bearing from British Sign Language BSL and French Sign language LSF (Nobutaka, 2004). Some of these African signed languages are still threatened or at least influenced by their foreign “parent languages” till this day. While the indigenous African signed languages are struggling to emerge, and develop, the undue influence of their foreign counterparts continue to suppress the languages, delude the users, learners and even teachers of the languages. Edward (2015a) and Asonye (2016), both have reiterated the gradual endangerment of signed languages used in Africa, which is claimed to be caused by contact with spoken languages, local laws, formal education, and other post-colonial ideologies. Thus, these signed languages are gradually being battered by social and educational policies. Apart from village sign languages, many African countries can also boast of national sign languages. This paper argues that the Africa’s deaf communities are rich in signed languages which are sustained by several socio-cultural factors including the obvious lack of linguists’ interest to study signed languages, and have been under the continued attack of the colonist languages and cultures considered superior because they are documented and largely studied, It also seeks to demonstrate patterns of the effects of linguistic genocide on signed languages in Africa and their users. Examples are drawn from the signed languages used in selected deaf communities in Nigeria and Ghana. A multidisciplinary approach was used in the data collection and analyses, which includes simple questionnaires and interviews from deaf individuals, deaf educators, and signed language instructors. A large corpus of indigenous signed language items was also collected from different deaf communities and were analyzed and findings show that these signed languages have developed unique structural features distinct from the ASL, Signed English or any other imposed signed language.
Full-text available
“Adamorobe signing is sweet,” “The signing in Adamorobe is hard,” “Adamorobe’s deaf people should sign in an eye‐hard way.” These are discourses about signing in Adamorobe Sign Language (AdaSL), a sign language used in Adamorobe, an Akan farmer village in southern Ghana distinguished by a history of hereditary deafness. By calling AdaSL sweet, hard and so on, deaf people in Adamorobe attribute qualia (sensuous qualities which can include hardness, lightness, dryness, and so on) to different forms of signing. Based on fieldwork stints in Adamorobe spread over a period of 10 years, I analyze how qualic evaluations of AdaSL are expressed differently by deaf people from different generations who have had different rates of exposure to Ghanaian Sign Language in addition to AdaSL. Qualic evaluations of AdaSL are related to qualic evaluations of behavior (Gal 2013; Harkness 2015): there are parallels in discourses about AdaSL being hard and deaf people being hard of character and being hardworking strong farmers. Qualic evaluations of language and social relationships permeate discourses about intergenerational differences, constituting a recurrent theme in the language ideological assemblage (i.e., clusters of language ideologies and other ideologies that impact on language) (Kroskrity 2018).
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This article analyzes language ideologies with regard to sign language in Adamorobe, a "shared signing community" in southern Ghana. Adamorobe Sign Language (AdaSL) is a "shared sign language," used by all deaf people and a large number of hearing Akan-speaking people. Deaf schoolchildren from Adamorobe attend a school where Ghanaian Sign Language (GSL) is taught. Hearing interviewees have experiential knowledge that everything can be said in AdaSL, emphasise the shared roots of AdaSL and Akan, and called AdaSL "natural." Deaf interlocutors describe Akan, AdaSL, and GSL as three distinct but equivalent languages. AdaSL is said to be a "hard" language, more pleasant to use, and more expressive than GSL, but sign bilingualism is highly valued. These findings are compared and con-trasted with accounts on language ideologies with regard to other shared sign languages and larger urban/national sign languages.
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Adamorobe is a village in Ghana where the historical presence of a hereditary form of deafness resulted in a high number of deaf inhabitants. Over the centuries, a local sign language emerged, which is used between deaf and hearing people in everyday life, rendering Adamorobe into a unique place of inclusion of deaf people. However, in 1975, a law was introduced to reduce the number of deaf people in Adamorobe: deaf people cannot marry each other in order to avoid deaf offspring. In the long term, this law threatens the linguistic and cultural diversity in this village where the use of sign language is omnipresent and where deaf people are perceived as fully productive and worthy members of society. This article is structured around two sets of tensions in the village, Firstly, hearing people’s acceptance and inclusion of the deaf inhabitants, versus the wish to live in a village with no (or less) deaf people. Secondly, there is a tension between deaf people’s subjection to, and resistance against, the law, this is a tension that can be observed in the existence of relationships between deaf partners, and abortions when these unions lead to pregnancies.
In this dissertation, I investigate various manifestations of iconicity and how these are demonstrated in the visual-spatial modality, focusing specifically on Ghanaian Sign Language (GSL) and Adamorobe Sign Language (AdaSL). The dissertation conducts three main empirical analyses comparing GSL and AdaSL. The data for the analyses were elicited from deaf participants using lexical elicitation and narrative tasks. The first study considers iconicity in GSL and AdaSL lexical items. This study additionally compares the iconic strategies used by signers to those produced in gestures by hearing non-signers in the surrounding communities. The second study investigates iconicity in the spatial domain, focusing on the iconic use of space to depict location, motion, action. The third study looks specifically at the use of, simultaneous constructions, and compares the use of different types of simultaneous constructions between the two sign languages. Finally, the dissertation offers a theoretical analysis of the data across the studies from a cognitive linguistics perspective on iconicity in language. The study on lexical iconicity compares GSL and AdaSL signers’ use of iconic strategies across five semantic categories: Handheld tools, Clothing & Accessories, Furniture & Household items, Appliances, and Nature. Findings are discussed with respect to patterns of iconicity across semantic categories, and with respect to similarities and differences between signs and gestures. The result of this study demonstrates that varied iconic patterns for different semantic domains emerge within the sign languages (and gesture) and provide valuable insight into the typology of sign languages and into the community-mediated interplay between sign and gesture in their shared access to the iconic affordances of the visual modality. The analysis of iconicity in the grammatical constructions expressing location, motion and action focuses on similarities and differences between the two sign languages in signers’ telling of a narrative. The analysis shows that the expression of iconicity in the grammatical domain depends on different predicate types, e.g., classifier and lexical predicates and the use of signing perspectives. Although GSL and AdaSL do not show substantial differences in their use of predicate types and perspectives, we identify the possible language contact as reason for some novel structures in AdaSL. The third study investigates the different types of simultaneous constructions (SC) in GSL and AdaSL. The analysis indicates that GSL and AdaSL use different types of SC to almost the same degree. Some of the results from AdaSL were unexpected considering previous research on SC. The cognitive linguistics approaches to iconicity considers the different ways in which grammatical organisation mirrors experience. The framework perceives iconic structures to be instantiated by the meaningfulness of the phonological parameters and the meaningfulness is influenced by signers’ experiential knowledge.
This research drew on the linguistic concept of iconicity and with a period of three months, five deaf signers of the Adamorobe community and some unspecified Akuapem Twi (Akan) speakers were studied and interviewed. The Adamorobe Sign Language examples categorised for retrieval are size and shape, time expression, verbal directionality and emotive and cognitive function. The ideophones of Akuapem Twi examples given in this thesis, based on the implicational hierarchy are sound, touch, movement, smell, vision and size and shape. The thesis presented that iconicity is highly exhibited in the Adamorobe Sign Language and the ideophones of Akuapem Twi. There are levels of iconicity demonstrated in each. The research used an iconic scale of 1-5 to check the levels of iconicity; 5-4 representing the highest iconicity and 1 representing the lowest iconicity. This scale was personally developed to aid in categorising the levels of iconicity and it was identified that some of the iconic element are higher in iconicity while others are low. The AdaSL and the ideophones of Akuapem Twi have Highly Iconic Structures that have strong iconic resemblance of the form. There is an image-form-meaning-mapping relationship between the iconic elements. The signs were found to mirror what the signer is presenting; i.e. pictorial representations (visual iconicity in the sign language) and the sounds of the ideophones produced vocal iconicity through the sound symbolisms. The image-form-meaning-mapping relationship between the icons of the AdaSL and the depicted image or concept creates an iconic relationship between the expression, the object and the meaning. Finally, the sign language in Adamorobe was also seen to demonstrate traces of influence from the Akuapem Twi through the mouthings and compound signs.
Construction of valued identities and evidence‐based cultural histories is not easy for deaf or disabled people across Africa. This paper locates some deaf people, gesture and formal Sign Language in African histories, to illustrate possible sources and encourage local, national and pan‐African compilation of materials. Documentary evidence of deaf individuals or groups is indicated from 25 nations, sourced in travellers' accounts, legal and genealogical records, government reports, institutional and missionary archives, linguistic studies, folklore, novels, religious narrative, mime and dance. Interpretations and uses of the materials remain for deaf people in Africa to decide according to their own various interests and objectives.
Behind the veil: The impact of deafness on rural livelihoods in Ghana (Case study of a Deaf couple in Adamorobe)
  • M Edward
Edward, M., 2018. Behind the veil: The impact of deafness on rural livelihoods in Ghana (Case study of a Deaf couple in Adamorobe). Lancaster University Ghana Journal of Disability (LUGJD), Volume 1.