International Sign
Regioncontact between sign languages, international contact between deaf people
Language codes
ISO 639-3ils

International Sign (IS) is a pidgin sign language[1] which is used in a variety of different contexts, particularly as an international auxiliary language at meetings such as the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) congress, in some[2] European Union settings,[3][4][5] and at some UN conferences,[3][5][6] at events such as the Deaflympics, the Miss & Mister Deaf World, and Eurovision,[7] and informally when travelling and socialising.

Linguists do not agree on what the term International Sign means precisely, and empirically derived dictionaries are lacking.


While the more commonly used term is International Sign, it is sometimes referred to as Gestuno,[8] or International Sign Pidgin[9] and International Gesture (IG).[10] International Sign (IS) is a term used by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) and other international organisations.[11]


Deaf people in the Western and Middle Eastern world have gathered together using sign language for 2,000 years.[12] When Deaf people from different sign language backgrounds get together, a variety of sign language arises from this contact, whether it is in an informal personal context or in a formal international context. Deaf people have therefore used a kind of auxiliary gestural system for international communication at sporting or cultural events since the early 19th century.[13] The need to standardise an international sign system was discussed at the first World Deaf Congress in 1951, when the WFD was formed. In the following years, a pidgin developed as the delegates from different language backgrounds communicated with each other, and in 1973, a WFD committee ("the Commission of Unification of Signs") published a standardized vocabulary. They selected "naturally spontaneous and easy signs in common use by deaf people of different countries"[8] to make the language easy to learn. A book published by the commission in 1975, Gestuno: International Sign Language of the Deaf, contains a vocabulary list of 1,470 signs.[8] The name Gestuno was chosen, referencing gesture and oneness.[citation needed]

However, when Gestuno was first used at the WFD congress in Bulgaria in 1976, it was incomprehensible to deaf participants.[14] Subsequently, it was developed informally by deaf and hearing interpreters, and came to include more grammar, especially linguistic features that are thought to be universal among sign languages, such as role shifting, movement repetitions, the use of signing space, and classifiers. Additionally, the vocabulary was gradually replaced by more iconic signs and loan signs from various sign languages.[citation needed]

The first training course in Gestuno was conducted in Copenhagen in 1977 to prepare interpreters for the 5th World Conference on Deafness. Sponsored by the Danish Association of the Deaf and the University of Copenhagen, the course was designed by Robert M. Ingram and taught by Betty L. Ingram, two American interpreters of deaf parents.[15]

The name Gestuno has fallen out of use, and the phrase International Sign is now more commonly used in English to identify this variety of sign. This may be because current IS has little in common with the signs published under the name Gestuno.[citation needed]


International Sign has been described as a highly variable type of signed communication used between two signers who lack a common sign language.[16][17] Most experts do not technically consider IS to be a full language,[16] but rather a form of communication that arises on the spot.[17] It is characterized by a focus on iconic or pantomimic structures; IS signers may also point to nearby objects.[17] While some degree of standardization takes place at events such WFD and the European Union of the Deaf, it is limited to vocabulary, not grammar.[17]

There is no consensus on what International Sign is exactly. It may either refer to the way strangers sign with each other when they lack a common sign language, or it can refer to a conventionalized form used by a group of people with regular contact.[18] The use of the term International Sign might also lead to the misconception that it is a standardized form of communication.[18]

Deaf people typically know only one sign language.[17] Signers from differing countries may use IS spontaneously with each other, with relative success.[17] This communicative success is linked to various factors. First, people who sign in IS have a certain amount of shared contextual knowledge. Secondly, signers may take advantage of shared knowledge of a spoken language, such as English. Thirdly, communication is made easier by the use of iconic signs and pantomime.[17]


The lexicon of International Sign is made by negotiation between signers. IS signers reportedly use a set of signs from their own national sign language mixed with highly iconic signs that can be understood by a large audience.[19][20] Many, not to say most, signs are taken from American Sign Language during the past 30 years.[21] In 1973, a committee created and standardized a system of international signs. They tried to choose the most understandable signs from diverse sign languages to make the language easy to learn for not only the Deaf but for both interim management and an everyday observer.[22] IS interpreter Bill Moody noted in a 1994 paper that the vocabulary used in conference settings is largely derived from the sign languages of the Western world and is less comprehensible to those from African or Asian sign language backgrounds.[23] A 1999 study by Bencie Woll suggested that IS signers often use a large amount of vocabulary from their native language,[24] choosing sign variants that would be more easily understood by a foreigner.[25] In contrast, Rachel Rosenstock notes that the vocabulary exhibited in her study of International Sign was largely made up of highly iconic signs common to many sign languages:

Over 60% of the signs occurred in the same form in more than eight SLs as well as in IS. This suggests that the majority of IS signs are not signs borrowed from a specific SL, as other studies found, but rather are common to many natural SLs. Only 2% of IS signs were found to be unique to IS. The remaining 38% were borrowed (or "loan") signs that could be traced back to one SL or a group of related SLs.[26]

International Sign has a simplified lexicon. In IS for example, the English who, what, and how are all translated simply to what. Another example of this simplified lexicon is the location of the sign itself. IS will use movements on the chest to indicate feeling signs, and signs near the head will indicate cognitive activity.[27] There have been several attempts at making dictionaries for IS. However, these lack detailed information on data collection, nor do they describe the exact meaning or how the signs should be used. This causes difficulty for training and teaching people in IS, as there is no empirical evidence.[18]

Manual alphabet

The manual alphabet of IS belongs to the French family of manual alphabets, specifically in a subgroup around to the modern American manual alphabet. However, some letters differ in a few finger positions to the American alphabet.[28]

IS numbers larger than five are, unlike in ASL, performed by two hands.


Very little is known about the grammar of IS.[21] It tends to use fewer mouthings and often has a larger signing space. The use of mouth gestures for adverbials is emphasized.[21]

People communicating in IS tend to make heavy use of:

  1. role play,
  2. index and reference locations in the signing space in front of the signer, on the head and trunk, and on the non-dominant hand,
  3. different movement repetitions,
  4. size and shape delineation techniques using handshapes and extensions of movements of the hands (Size and Size Specifiers, SASS), and
  5. a feature common to most sign languages: an extensive formal system of classifiers used in verbs/predicates (classifiers are handshapes used to describe things, handle objects, and represent a few semantic classes that are regarded by IS signers to be widespread in sign languages, helping them to overcome linguistic barriers).

It has been noted that signers are generally better at interlingual communication than non-signers, even using a spoken lingua franca.[citation needed]

A paper presented in 1994 suggested that IS signers "combine a relatively rich and structured grammar with a severely impoverished lexicon".[29] Supalla and Webb (1995) describe IS as a kind of a pidgin, but conclude that it is "more complex than a typical pidgin and indeed is more like that of a full sign language".[1]

Recent studies of International Sign

Simplification of signs in IS can vary between interpreters (one can choose a simplification over a much longer explanation), and because of this, certain information can be lost in translation.[30] Because sign language relies heavily on local influences, many Deaf people do not understand each other's signs. Furthermore, cultural differences in signs can vary even within borders.[31] In these cases, many Deaf people revert to fingerspelling and gestures or mime, which has its own variations based on similar sign language properties.[32]

The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) has raised concern about the issues with simplification and standardization, and that it limits a sign to a single meaning or word, thus losing all natural forms of the initial meaning.[33]

An ethnographic study notes that there is some controversy among deaf people about how accessible IS is to deaf people from different places; it also observes that many deaf people are nevertheless highly motivated to do the work of communicating across linguistic and other differences.[34]


See also


  1. ^ a b Supalla, T. and Webb, R. (1995). "The grammar of international sign: A new look at pidgin languages." In: Emmorey, Karen / Reilly, Judy S. (eds): Language, gesture, and space. (International Conference on Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research) Hillsdale, N.J. : Erlbaum (p. 347).
  2. ^ Langensiepen, Katrin (15 September 2021). "EU State of the Union: Why no sign Language interpretation?". The Parliament Magazine. Merit Group. Archived from the original on 2 June 2023. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  3. ^ a b "International Sign Interpreter". World Association of Sign Language Interpreters. WASLI. Archived from the original on 26 March 2023. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  4. ^ Pelea, Alina. "International Sign: Interested in perfecting your skills as an interpreter in international sign". Knowledge Centre on Interpretation. European Commission. Archived from the original on 20 February 2022. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  5. ^ a b de Wit, Maya; Crasborn, Onno; Napier, Jemina (25 January 2021). "Interpreting international sign: mapping the interpreter's profile". The Interpreter and Translator Trainer. 15 (2): 205–24. doi:10.1080/1750399X.2020.1868172. hdl:2066/230291. S2CID 234031206.
  6. ^ International Sign Interpretation at United Nations Meetings (PDF) (Report). World Federation of the Deaf. August 2013. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2014-01-04.
  7. ^ "Eurovision 2016 to be broadcast with international sign performances". Eurovision Song Contest. 22 April 2016. Archived from the original on 26 March 2023. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  8. ^ a b c British Deaf Association. (1975). Gestuno: International sign language of the deaf. Carlisle, England: BDA.
  9. ^ McKee R., Napier J. (2002) "Interpreting in International Sign Pidgin: an analysis." Journal of Sign Language Linguistics 5(1).
  10. ^ Bar-Tzur, David (2002). International gesture: Principles and gestures website Archived 2017-11-11 at the Wayback Machine
    Moody, W. (1987).International gesture. In J. V. Van Cleve (ed.), "Gallaudet encyclopedia of deaf people and deafness", Vol 3 S-Z, Index. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc.
  11. ^ Mesch, Johanna. Perspectives on the Concept and Definition of International Sign, World Federation of the Deaf, May 2010,
  12. ^ Woll, Bencie and Ladd, Paddy (2003). Deaf communities. In M. Marschark and P. Spencer (eds.), The Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language and Education (pp. 151-163). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  13. ^ McKee R., Napier J. (2002), citing:
    *Moody, B. (n.d.). International communication among deaf people. Unpublished, undated manuscript.
    *Scott Gibson, L. & R. Ojala (1994). “International Sign Interpreting.” Paper presented to the Fourth East and South African Sign Language Seminar, Uganda, August 1994.
  14. ^ Rosenstock, Rachel. International Sign: Negotiating Understanding, Research at Gallaudet, Fall 2005 - Winter 2006. This article was derived from the author's 2004 PhD dissertation:
    * Rosenstock, Rachel. (2004). An Investigation of International Sign: Analyzing Structure and Comprehension. Gallaudet University.
  15. ^ Moody, Bill (2002). "International Sign: A Practitioner's Perspective." Journal of Interpretation, 1-47.
  16. ^ a b Green, E. Mara (2014). "Building the tower of Babel: International Sign, linguistic commensuration, and moral orientation". Language in Society. 43 (4): 445–465. doi:10.1017/S0047404514000396. ISSN 0047-4045. S2CID 147662111.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g Hiddinga, Anja; Crasborn, Onno (2011). "Signed languages and globalization" (PDF). Language in Society. 40 (4): 483–505. doi:10.1017/S0047404511000480. ISSN 0047-4045. S2CID 14010408. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-09-23.
  18. ^ a b c Whynot, Lori (2015). "Telling, Showing, and Representing: Conventions of the Lexicon in International Sign Expository Text". International sign : linguistic, usage, and status issues. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet Univ Press. ISBN 9781563686573. OCLC 936854431.
  19. ^ Stone, Christopher; Russell, Debra (2015). "Comparative Analysis of Depicting Signs in International Sign and Natural Sign Language Interpreting". International sign : linguistic, usage, and status issues. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet Univ Press. ISBN 9781563686573. OCLC 936854431.
  20. ^ European Union of the Deaf. "International Sign". EUD. Archived from the original on 2018-11-28. Retrieved 2018-11-19. Experienced IS signers try to be as independent from one specific national sign language as possible, to ensure a large audience of varied backgrounds can understand the message to the fullest extent possible.
  21. ^ a b c Anne, Baker (2016). The linguistics of sign languages : an introduction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 319. ISBN 9789027212306. OCLC 932169688.
  22. ^ Signs For Humanity (2018-07-24). "Deaf people from different countries can communicate with each other using something called International Sign!". Facebook. Length 1:34 minutes. Archived from the original on 2022-02-26. Retrieved 2018-11-19.
  23. ^ Moody, B. (1994). International Sign: Language, pidgin or charades? Paper presented at the "Issues in Interpreting 2" conference, University of Durham, Durham, April 1994. Cited in McKee R., Napier J. (2002)
  24. ^ Sutton-Spence, Rachel and Woll, Bencie. (1999) The Linguistics of British Sign Language: An Introduction. p. 32. ISBN 0-521-63718-X
  25. ^ Day, Linda, (2000) British Sign Language in its Social Context, Session 10: Language Planning and Standardisation Archived 2018-08-07 at the Wayback Machine - notes for students
  26. ^ Rosenstock, Op cit.
  27. ^ Rosenstock, Rachel (2008). "The Role of Iconicity in International Sign". Sign Language Studies. 8 (2): 131–159. doi:10.1353/sls.2008.0003. ISSN 1533-6263. S2CID 145192212.
  28. ^ Power, Justin M.; Grimm, Guido W.; List, Johann-Mattis (January 2020). "Evolutionary dynamics in the dispersal of sign languages". Royal Society Open Science. 7 (1). Royal Society: 191100. Bibcode:2020RSOS....791100P. doi:10.1098/rsos.191100. PMC 7029929. PMID 32218940. Archived from the original on 26 March 2023. Retrieved 26 June 2020.
  29. ^ Allsop, Lorna; Woll, Bencie; Brauti, John Martin (1995). International sign: The creation of an international deaf community and sign language. In: Bos, Heleen F. and Schermer, Gertrude M. (eds): "Sign Language Research 1994: Proceedings of the Fourth European Congress on Sign Language Research, Munich, September 1–3, 1994." (International Studies on Sign Language and Communication of the Deaf; 29) Hamburg : Signum (1995) - p. 187
  30. ^ Rosenstock, Rachel (2008). "The Role of Iconicity in International Sign". Sign Language Studies. 8 (2): 144–146. doi:10.1353/sls.2008.0003. ISSN 1533-6263. S2CID 145192212.
  31. ^ Battison, Robbin; Jordan, I. King (1976). "Cross-Cultural Communication with Foreign Signers: Fact and Fancy". Sign Language Studies. 1010 (1): 57–59. doi:10.1353/sls.1976.0018. ISSN 1533-6263. S2CID 144987587.
  32. ^ Battison, Robbin; Jordan, I. King (1976). "Cross-Cultural Communication with Foreign Signers: Fact and Fancy". Sign Language Studies. 1010 (1): 60. doi:10.1353/sls.1976.0018. ISSN 1533-6263. S2CID 144987587.
  33. ^ Adam, Robert (2015-07-08). "Standardization of Sign Languages". Sign Language Studies. 15 (4): 432–445. doi:10.1353/sls.2015.0015. ISSN 1533-6263. S2CID 145518387.
  34. ^ Green, E. Mara (2014-08-13). "Building the tower of Babel: International Sign, linguistic commensuration, and moral orientation". Language in Society. 43 (4): 451–452. doi:10.1017/s0047404514000396. ISSN 0047-4045. S2CID 147662111.
  35. ^ "International Sign Language Dictionary". 2015-07-09. Archived from the original on 2015-07-09. Retrieved 2021-09-14.
  36. ^ "The ISL video dictionary: 440 words - Sématos". Archived from the original on 2018-09-25. Retrieved 2018-10-16.
  37. ^ "International Sign". European Union of the Deaf. Archived from the original on 2018-11-28. Retrieved 2018-10-16.
  38. ^ "international sign | Signs2Cross". (in Norwegian Bokmål). Archived from the original on 2018-10-12. Retrieved 2018-10-16.