Sign languages refer to languages (produced by movements of the hands, face and body as a whole) that deaf people have developed to communicate. They perform all the functions performed by oral languages. I mean sign languages in plural because there is no universal sign language. However, two deaf speakers from 2 different countries can understand each other after some adaptation time.
Memory from the philosophy lesson
When I was in my last year of high school, I had a pretty crazy philosophy teacher. I have to admit that he made me think a lot during his lessons, and that most of the time I was pretty much okay with what he was saying. With some exceptions. One of them was a lesson on languages and ways of speaking. He claimed that communication between human beings was of course based on spoken language, but also on oral expression (voice intonation, intensity) and body gestures and facial expressions. Sending an SMS conveys less information than a call, which itself conveys less information than seeing a person in real life. These additional aspects of language are not insignificant for the complete understanding of a message or an emotion. For these reasons, he called sign language a “sub-language“, the oral aspect being lacking and thus rendering it “incomplete”. And for that, I do not agree.
Koko the gorilla
Humans have always been fascinated by communication between animals and their behavior is even studied until now. Communication between humans and animals has always been present in our imagination, whether in films where animals speak (Princess Mononoke, Dr Dolittle, Babe, a pig in the city) / where men understand animal language (Children of the sea, Nausicaa of the valley of the wind) or in writings (Thorgal, Little Prince, …).
The best-known real example that I know of this sort of thing is Koko the Gorilla. She was a female gorilla born in the 1970s in California to the Gorilla Foundation. Her caregiver, Francine Patterson, taught her signs from American sign language, so that in the end she would be able to understand more than 2000 signs and make more than 1000. With such a communication tool, Koko could show the extent of her intelligence, her faculties and was able to convey her emotions. In particular, she surprised the scientific community by passing the mirror test: it is a test which consists in testing animals on their ability to recognize themselves (or not) in a mirror and not to consider their reflection as another individual of the same species. She was able to clearly express wishes (such as asking for a pet cat) and to give her own names to animals given to her.
Beyond the fact that a gorilla can show many characteristics similar to a human being (such as self-awareness, take care of other animals, what we thought specific to humans), she was able to perfectly converse with a human individual by doing understand the entirety of her subject, thanks to a common tool usable by both species: sign language.
A bridge between humans and animals
Of course, this is a special case because gorillas and humans have the particularity of having hands with opposable thumbs (like all primates) and can therefore share this language. But still, can a language that allows an animal to express itself in the same field as a human really be called a “sub-language”? Even though it allows for more in-depth communication between living beings, when oral language cannot?
A human language that makes communication with animals possible (even if primates are only a tiny part of the animal world) should be rightly considered in my opinion.
You have many examples of animals communicating with humans with a shared communication tool (like dogs buzzing to tell what they want), but if you want to read and see more on Koko, here’s a link to an article and a short video (but articles abound on the internet).
See you next time for more anecdotes (: