Differentiating ‘dialect’ and ‘language’ in sign languages
A case study of two signing varieties in Indonesia
The distinction between languages and dialects has remained a controversial issue in literature. When such a distinction is made, it often has far-reaching implications in top-down language promotion and preservation policies that tend to favor only those varieties that are labelled as ‘languages’. This issue is of critical importance for the survival of most sign language varieties in the world from a socio-political point of view. Against this background, this paper discusses how the notions of ‘dialect’ and ‘language’ have been applied in classifying sign languages in the past few decades. In particular, the paper reports on two recent studies which provide linguistic evidence that the signing varieties used by Deaf signers in Jakarta and Yogyakarta in Indonesia should be regarded as distinct sign languages rather than mutually intelligible dialects of Indonesian Sign Language. The evidence comes from significant differences in the lexicon, preferred word order for encoding transitive events, and use of mouth actions. Our result suggests that signing varieties within a country can be significantly different from each other, thus calling for more concerted efforts in documenting and recognizing these differences if the linguistic needs of the signing communities are to be met.
Keywords: sign language, language-dialect distinction, mutual intelligibility, lexicostatistics, word order, mouth actions, Indonesia
Published online: 31 December 2015
Cited by 2 other publications
Tkachman, Oksana & Irit Meir
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