ever seen deaf people signing and wondered where this language came from? Was
it invented? Is it English? Is it universally understood by deaf people the world
American Sign Language (ASL)
is not an invented language. It is a natural, living language, unrelated to English
in its grammar. It’s not universal, but just as Spanish and Portuguese are
related, ASL has relatives in the family of signed languages. The closest living
relative to ASL is not British Sign Language — BSL and ASL are not mutually
comprehensible — but French Sign Language, or Langue des Signes Française
In 2003 two students
in UNM's Department of Linguistics Signed Language Interpreting Program began working
with faculty on honors projects to study these historical connections between
ASL and LSF. Rebecca Varoz accompanied UNM Professor Dr. Phyllis Wilcox to Paris, France to
study modern LSF. Under a research project funded by UNM’s Research Allocations
Committee and with honors funds from the College of Arts and Sciences, they collected
language data from deaf, native users of LSF.
Laurel Page worked on a project in the
department’s video laboratory designed to make it easier for students and
faculty to study the historical connections between ASL and LSF. The problem was
finding a way to search for and compare several thousand signs from their images
in old documents. The solution was to construct a database of images of each sign.
"For the database, I scanned in pictures of old ASL and pictures of LSF. Then
each sign was coded by using the four parameters of sign (shape, location, movement
and palm orientation) as guides."
stop there. She also used computer multimedia technology to capture movies of
ASL signers filmed in 1913 telling stories, transferring them to digital video.
Then, Laurel added text captions to the digital video to coincide with the signs.
Now, instead of time-consuming searches for a particular sign on a videotape,
students and faculty can simply type in a word and the computer instantly finds
the ASL sign.
"Starting this database was a wonderful learning experience," says Laurel. "I
hope to continue to work on both the database and the video as well as learning
more about old ASL and LSF."
says her trip to Paris and continuing honors study will be invaluable when she
graduates and enters the job market. "This experience is something I will never
forget. I have gained better knowledge about the deaf world. I am grateful because
this will enhance my skills in the interpreting profession."