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German Sign Language
Native toGermany, Belgium, Luxembourg
Native speakers
Between 80,000 and 395,000 (2014)[1]
German Sign Language family
  • German Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3gsg
  Areas where German Sign Language is a national language
  Areas where German Sign Language is in significant use alongside another sign language

German Sign Language or Deutsche Gebärdensprache (DGS), is the sign language of the deaf community in Germany, Luxembourg[2] and in the German-speaking community of Belgium[citation needed]. It is unclear how many use German Sign Language as their main language; Gallaudet University estimated 50,000 as of 1986. The language has evolved through use in deaf communities over hundreds of years.


Germany has a very strong oralist tradition and historically has seen a suppression of sign language. German Sign Language was first legally recognised in The Federal Disability Equality Act (2002) in May 2002.[3] Since then, deaf people have a legal entitlement to Sign Language interpreters when communicating with federal authorities, free of charge.[4]

Very few television programs include an interpreter; those that do are the news and a news "round-up". There is at least one programme conducted entirely in German Sign Language called Sehen statt Hören (Seeing Instead of Hearing), a documentary-style programme produced by the Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) and broadcast on Saturday mornings on Bayerischer Rundfunk and the other regional state broadcasters in Germany.

In 2018, the Luxembourgish Chamber of Deputies voted unanimously to recognise German Sign Language.[2]

German and German Sign Language

German Sign Language is unrelated to spoken German. While spoken German builds sentences following a subject – verb – object pattern, German Sign Language uses a subject object verb strategy.[5] Thus, the two have very different grammars, though as the dominant language of the region, German has had some influence on German Sign Language. A signed system that follows German grammar, Signed German (Lautsprachbegleitende Gebärden or Lautbegleitende Gebärden, "sound-accompanying signs"), is used in education. It is not used as a natural means of communication between deaf people. Another system of manually representing German is cued speech, known as Phonembestimmes Manualsystem (Phonemic Manual System).

Manual alphabet and fingerspelling

DGS manual alphabet

German Sign Language uses a one-handed manual alphabet ('Fingeralphabet' in German) derived from the French manual alphabet of the 18th century; it is related to manual alphabets used across Europe and in North America. It differs from the ASL manual alphabet in the shape of the letter T and in the addition of a letter SCH (a 'five' hand). The additional letters for Ä, Ö, Ü, and ß are formed by moving the letters for A, O, U, and S a short distance downwards.

Dialects and related languages

Main article: German Sign Language family

Regional variants of German Sign Language include Hamburg, Berlin, and Munich sign. Sign languages of regions in the former East Germany have a greater divergence from sign languages of the western regions; some may be unrelated. Polish Sign Language is descended from German Sign Language. Israeli Sign Language may be as well, as it evolved from the sign language used by German Jewish teachers who opened a school for deaf children in Jerusalem in 1932, and still shows some resemblance to its German counterpart. It is not related to Austrian Sign Language, which is used in parts of southern Germany, nor to Swiss Sign Language, both of which are part of the French Sign Language family, though they have had some influence from German Sign Language.

Notation systems

Everyday users of German Sign Language use no written form of the language. In academic contexts, German Sign Language is usually described with the Hamburg notation system or HamNoSys. SignWriting also has its adherents in Germany.


The grammar of German Sign Language may be described in terms of the conventional linguistic categories phonology, morphology, morphosyntax and syntax.


Signs are made up of a combination of different elements from each of the classes of distinctive features: handshape, hand orientation, location and movement. If one of these elements is changed, it can result in a sign with a completely different meaning. Two signs differing in only one element are deemed to be a minimal pair. German Sign Language uses 32 handshapes, of which six are basic handshapes found in all sign languages.

Two-handed signs are signs which are necessarily performed with both hands. Their formation is in accordance with certain phonotactic limitations, such as the rule of symmetry (when both hands move at the same time, they have the same handshape) and the rule of dominance (if the two hands have different handshapes, only the dominant hand is moved while the non-dominant hand remains passive).

Uninflected lexical signs in German Sign Language have at most two syllables. Syllables consist of two syllabic positions, described as Hold (H) and Movement (M). Holds consist of the handshape together with the hand orientation (together referred to as the hand configuration) at a specific location in signing space. Holds do not contain any change of location (movement from one location to another). Movements, on the other hand, involve a change of location and may involve secondary movements such as wiggling of the fingers. Syllables may then be grouped into the following types: M (the minimal syllable), HM, MH, HMH (the maximal syllable). In the case of HM syllables, for example, the hand configuration of the Movement moves away from the location of the Hold. A syllable of type M can consist of the following specifications: a path movement (from one location to another), a path movement with secondary movement (such as wiggling or twisting), or a secondary movement without path movement. The syllable type H (a segment without a Movement) is not allowed for phonotactical reasons.

An elementary component of lexical signs are non-manual lexical markings, such as movements of eyes (rolling, widening), mouth (puffing, rounding) and face, as well as the whole head (nodding, tilting) and upper body (leaning). These are obligatory accompaniments of a quarter of all lexical signs. Making visual syllables with the mouth is referred to as mouthing.


Clause structure

Unmarked word order

The unmarked word order in DGS is subject-object-verb, similar to languages such as Turkish, Japanese and Latin, but differing from German.

subject object verb
"you" "work" "search"
You are looking for a job.
Subject Object Verb
[PRON]1 BROT 1GEB-2[cl:Brot]
"I" "bread" "I-give-you(-something-bread-shaped)"
I give you (the) bread.

If an indirect object appears in the sentence, it stands before the direct object.

Subject indirect object direct object verb
[PRON]1 [POSS]1 VATER3 BROT 1GEB-3[cl:Brot]
"I" "my father" "bread" "I-give-him(-something-bread-shaped)"
I give my father (the) bread.

In sentences with chains of verbs, auxiliary verbs and similar usually appear after the full verb, the opposite of English word order.

Subject object "full verb" "auxiliary"
"you" "work" "search" "must"
You have to look for a job.
Subject "full verb" "auxiliary"
"I" "ride-a-bike" "cannot"
I can't ride a bike.
Subject "full verb" "auxiliary"
"I" "come" "try"
I'll try to come.
Subject Object "full verb" "Modalverb"
"I" "apartment" "clean" "can't-be-bothered"
I can't be bothered cleaning the apartment.

The Personal Agreement Marker (glossed as "PAM"), which looks almost like the sign for "person" and may be accompanied by the mouthing "auf" ("on"), is a sign used to indicate the location in signing space of animate objects when the verb in the sentence does not do this. It roughly fills the roll of object pronouns, however it seems to function more as an auxiliary verb, inflecting for person where the main verb does not. Although there is considerable variation, especially across dialects, it tends to occur where auxiliaries occur, after the verb, rather than in the object slot. The benefactive marker (glossed as "BEM") is similarly placed.

Subject "full verb" "auxiliary"
"I" "love" "you"
I love you.
Subject Object "full verb" "auxiliary"
"I" "doctor" "love" "him/her"
I love the doctor.
Subject object "full verb" "auxiliary"
"I" "book" "buy" "for-you"
I bought a book for you.

Time expressions (tomorrow, next week) appear at the beginning of the sentence (as a discourse topic).

Time Subject Indirect object Direct object Verb
"yesterday" "woman" "my sister" "book" "she-give-her(-something-book-shaped)"
Yesterday a/the woman gave my sister a/the book.

Phrases specifying location tend to occur at the beginning of the sentence (after the time information).

Time Location Subject Object Verb
"yesterday" "university there" "I" "man nice" "meet"
I met a nice man at the university yesterday.

This follows the figure-ground-principle, according to which smaller, more mobile referents (figures) tend to occur after larger, less mobile referents (ground).

Ground Figure Verb
"forest" "house" "house-shaped-object-is-situated-there"
There is a house in the forest.

Sentence adverbs often appear at the beginning of the sentence.

Sentence adverb Subject Object Verb
"hope" "s/he" "dog" "buy"
Hopefully s/he'll buy a dog.

However, adverbs that modify the verb but which cannot be expressed non-manually follow the verb as an extra clause.

Subject Verb Adverbial clause
"my boss" "dance" "beautiful"
My boss dances beautifully. / My boss dances and it's beautiful.

Wh-words (interrogatives) usually occur at the end of the sentence after the verb.

Subject "full verb" "auxiliary" Wh
"you" "order" "desire" "what"
What would you like to order?
Subject object "full verb" "auxiliary" Wh
"you" "DGS" "learn" "desire" "why"
Why do you want to learn DGS?
Subject Object "full verb" "auxiliary" Wh
"du" "social sciences" "study-at-university" "begin" "when"
How long have you been studying social sciences at university?

Some signs with a negative meaning tend to occur at the end of the sentence.

Subject Object Verb Negation
"ich" "your partner" "meet" "not-yet"
I haven't met your girlfriend/boyfriend/partner/husband/wife yet.
Subject "full verb" "auxiliary" negation
"I" "eat" "desire" "nothing"
I don't want to eat anything (at all).

However, if the negation is not emphasised, it can also appear in the expected position.

Subject object "full verb" "auxiliary"
"I" "nothing" "eat" "desire"
I don't want to eat anything.

Determiners (articles, demonstratives, quantifiers, relative pronouns) follow the noun.

Noun Determiner
"book" "this"
this book

Their function is to set the location of referents within the signing space. If this is indicated instead by directional verbs, determiners can always be omitted, provided they are not required for other reasons (such as showing possession, pluralisation, etc.) There is no distinction between definite and indefinite articles.

Attributive adjectives follow immediately after the noun.

Nomen Adjektiv
"book" "new"
a/the new book

The copula to be does not exist in DGS. Predicative adjectives are generally separated from the noun by a determiner.

Noun Determiner Adjective
"book" "this" "new"
This book is new.

Compare the preceding sentence to the following noun phrase, in which the determiner follows the adjective.

Noun Adjective Determiner
"book" "new" "this"
this new book

Possessive adjectives stand between the possessor and the possession.

Besitzer Possessiv Besitz
"man" "his" "car"
the man's car

Here is an example of a longer but nevertheless simple, unmarked sentence.

Time Location Subject Indirect object Direct object "full verb" "auxiliary" Wh
"last-week" "my father his house there" "you" "my mother" "money" "you-give-her" "desire" "why"
Why did you want to give my mother money at my father's house last week?
Marked sentences

Parts of the sentence which are moved outside of their usual unmarked position are accompanied by non-manual marking.

Sentence elements (with the exception of verbs) can be topicalised by being moved to the beginning of the sentence and marked with raised eyebrows.

Topicalised object Subject Verb
eyebrows raised head shake
"woman that" "I" "don't-like"
I don't like that woman. / That woman, I don't like.

Often, a topic doesn't otherwise have any other role in the sentence. In these cases, it represents a limitation of the scope of the sentence. Compare the following three sentences.

Subject Object Verb
"I" "Italy" "adore"
I love Italy.
Topic Subject Object Verb
eyebrows raised
"country" "I" "Italy" "adore"
My favourite country is Italy.
Topic Subject Object Verb
eyebrows raised
"food" "I" "Italy" "adore"
My favourite food is Italian.


  1. ^ German Sign Language at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016) Closed access icon
  2. ^ a b "German sign language unanimously recognised". RTL Today.
  3. ^ "ANED – countries – Germany – Facts and figures". Retrieved March 20, 2011.[permanent dead link]
  4. ^ Deutscher Gehörlosen-Bund e.V.
  5. ^ Bross, Fabian; Hole, Daniel (2017). "Scope-taking strategies and the order of clausal categories in German Sign Language". Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics. 2. doi:10.5334/gjgl.106.

Further reading