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Arab sign language
Mideast, North Africa
Linguistic classificationOne of the world's sign language families

The Arab sign-language family is a family of sign languages spread across the Arab Middle East. Its extent is not yet known, because only some of the sign languages in the region have been compared.[1]

A language planning project for a single Arabic Sign Language is being conducted by the Council of Arab Ministers of Social Affairs (CAMSA), with much of the vocabulary voted on by regional Deaf associations.[1][2] However, so far only a dictionary has been compiled; grammar has not been addressed, so the result cannot be considered a language.[3]


Unlike spoken Arabic, Arabic sign languages (ArSLs) are not diglossic. This means that there is one version of an Arabic sign language used by a community, rather than two versions, i.e. colloquial and formal, as is the case with the Arabic language.[4]


The sentence structure of ArSLs is relatively flexible, similar to spoken and written Arabic. One sentence can be signed in different word orders, such as Verb-Subject-Object (V-S-O), Subject-Verb-Object (S-V-O), Object-Verb-Subject (O-V-S) and Verb-Object-Subject (V-O-S.)[4]

The tense (present, future or past) of a sentence is usually referred to in the beginning of that sentence, except when they need to be changed during a conversation. In this case, the tense can be shifted towards the middle or the end of the sentence.[4]


According to M.A. Abdel-Fattah, a linguistic scholar, the vocabulary of ArSLs could originate from:

In ArSLs, just like other sign languages, the context of the word depends on the shape of the hand, alongside its position and movement relative to the body. To aid in the meaning of the sign, facial expressions and facial movements are also used.[4]

Most signs in ArSLs are limited to nouns and verbs, but for prepositions and intensifiers, it is the execution of the sign which indicates the two. For example, in Libyan Sign Language, the sign "every day" involves touching the nose with the index finger and repeating it three times.[4]

According to Abdel-Fatteh, certain vocabulary in ArSLs are synosigns, antosigns, homosigns and compounds.[4]


Despite having many sign language varieties in the Middle East under the broader "Arabic Sign Language", it is unlikely that any of these languages are related to each other.[1] Among the national sign languages which may be related are the following, listed in alphabetical order:

Egyptian Sign Language

Egyptian Sign Language is used by the deaf community in Egypt.

Emirati Sign Language

Emirati Sign Language is a unified sign language for the deaf community in the UAE.

Iraqi Sign Language

Iraqi Sign Language is used by the deaf community in Iraq.

Kuwaiti Sign Language

Kuwaiti Sign Language is the sign language used by the hearing-impaired people of Kuwait.

Levantine Arabic Sign Language

Levantine Arabic Sign Language is utilized by the people residing in the Levant region and includes Jordanian Sign Language (LIU) and Palestinian Sign Language, among others.

Libyan Sign Language

Libyan Sign Language is the sign language of the deaf community in Libya.

Omani Sign Language

Omani Sign Language

Qatari Sign Language

Qatari Sign Language is a unified sign language for the deaf community in Qatar.

Saudi Sign Language

Saudi Sign Language is used by the deaf community in Saudi Arabia.

Yemeni Sign Language

Yemeni Sign Language is the sign language used in Yemen.

Other languages of the region appear to not be related. Moroccan Sign Language derives from American Sign Language, and Tunisian Sign Language from Italian Sign Language. There are numerous local Sudanese sign languages which are not even related to each other, and there are many other Arab village sign languages in the region, such as Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language and Ghardaia Sign Language, which are not related to the national languages.


"Unified" Arabic Sign Language

To unify the Arab World with one distinct sign language that can be understood throughout the MENA region, a dictionary for a standard Arabic Sign Language (ArSL) has been produced in 2004 by the Council of Arab Ministers of Social Affairs (CAMSA).[1][2] This dictionary consists of a combination of signs from a wide range of mostly unrelated Arab sign languages such as Egyptian Sign Language and Jordanian Sign Language.[1]  

This "Standardized" Arabic Sign Language has been applied by interpreters in news outlets like Al-Jazeera in their news broadcasting, including simultaneous interpreting.[1][5]

However, the introduction of ArSL has been met with backlash by the deaf community, because it is not the native sign language of any country in the region.[1] There are also wide disparities between the vocabulary of the standardized version and the national sign languages.[1] As a result, it is difficult for the deaf community in the Middle East to understand the Standardized version and so use it.[1][2][4]

Access to Services

An international survey was conducted by Hilde Haualand in 2009, which investigated the accessibility of sign language interpreters, as well as the training and support the Deaf community receives. This survey included the MENA region. Regions that were investigated in the survey included Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, UAE and Yemen.[6]

A participant representing each country in the survey answered five yes/no questions, which included:

  1. If the deaf could access government services[6]
  2. If there is a "Sign Language interpreting service" in their country[6]
  3. If Interpreters have any interpreting qualifications[6]
  4. if there is a Code of Ethics for Interpreters[6]
  5. If the government was responsible for their salaries[6]

A yes response to each of these questions yields one point, with five points being the maximum for any country.[6] Qatar was the only country in the survey that had five points, meaning they satisfied all the aforementioned five criteria relating to accessibility.[6] Bahrain and Kuwait satisfied the first four questions.[6] Oman, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and UAE had three points, meaning they had answered "yes" to the first three questions.[6] Algeria, Morocco and Lebanon had two points and Yemen had one point.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Al-Fityani, Kinda; Padden, Carol (2010). "Sign Language Geography in the Arab World" (PDF). University of Haifa. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-07-31.
  2. ^ a b c Adam, Robert (2015). "Standardization of Sign Languages". Sign Language Studies. 15 (4): 432–445. doi:10.1353/sls.2015.0015. JSTOR 26190997. S2CID 145518387.
  3. ^ Al-Fityani, Kinda (2010). Deaf people, modernity, and a contentious effort to unify Arab sign languages (Thesis).
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Abdel-Fattah, M. A. (1 April 2005). "Arabic Sign Language: A Perspective". Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. 10 (2): 212–221. doi:10.1093/deafed/eni007. PMID 15778217.
  5. ^ Darwish, Ali (June 2006). "Standards of Simultaneous Interpreting in Live Satellite Broadcasts Arabic Case Study" (PDF). Translation Watch Quarterly. 2 (2): 55–88. CiteSeerX S2CID 216153629.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Haualand, Hilde (2009). "Sign Language Interpreting: A Human Rights Issue". ResearchGate.

Further reading