Plains Indian Sign Language
Hand Talk
Plains Sign Language
First Nation Sign Language[1]
Langue des signes des Indiens des Plaines
Langue des signes des autochtones des Plaines[2][3]
(in French Canada)
Lenguaje de signos Indio de las Llanuras
(in Mexico)
Native toCanada, Mexico, USA
RegionCentral Canada and United States including the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains region; northern Mexico
EthnicityVarious Plains Indians
Native speakers
  • Navajo Sign Language
  • Blackfoot Sign Language
  • Cree Sign Language
  • Ojibwa Sign Language
None; illustrations of signs
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Recognised as official in courts, education and legislative assembly of Ontario.[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3psd
ELPPlains Indian Sign Language
  The attested historical range of Plains Sign Language among other sign languages in the US and Canada (excl. ASL and LSQ)
Extracts of the films taken during the 1930 Conference on PISL conservation, showing General Hugh L. Scott and signers from various tribes[4]
A 1900 newspaper illustration claiming to showcase several of the signs of Plains Indian Sign Language

Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), also known as Hand Talk or Plains Sign Language, is an endangered[5] language common to various Plains Nations across what is now central Canada, the central and western United States and northern Mexico.[6] This sign language was used historically as a lingua franca, notably for trading among tribes; it is still used for story-telling, oratory, various ceremonies, and by deaf people for ordinary daily use.[7]

In 1885, it was estimated that there were over 110,000 "sign-talking Indians", including Blackfoot Confederacy, Cheyenne, Sioux, Kiowa and Arapaho. As a result of several factors, including the European colonization of the Americas, the number of sign talkers declined sharply from European colonization onward. However, growing interest and preservation work on Plains Sign Language has increased its use and visibility in the 21st century.[6] Historically, some have likened its more formal register, used by men, to Church Latin in function.[8] It is primarily used today by elders and deaf members of Native American tribes.[5]

Some deaf Indigenous children attend schools for the deaf and learn American Sign Language (ASL) having already acquired Plains Sign Language.[7] A group studied in 1998 were able to understand each other, though this was likely through the use of International Sign.[7] Jeffrey E. Davis, a leading linguist in documentation efforts,[5] hypothesizes that this contact, combined with potential contact with Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (another potential antecedent to ASL) may suggest that ASL descends in part from Plains Sign Language.[9]: 24–27 


Plains Sign Language's antecedents, if any, are unknown due to a lack of written records. However, the earliest records of contact between Europeans and Indigenous peoples of the Gulf Coast region in what is now Texas and northern Mexico note a fully formed sign language already in use by the time of the Europeans' arrival there.[10] These records include the accounts of Cabeza de Vaca in 1527 and Coronado in 1541.

Signing may have started in the south of North America, perhaps in northern Mexico or Texas, and only spread into the Plains in recent times, though this suspicion may be an artifact of European observation. Plains Sign Language spread to the Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Caddo after their removal to Oklahoma. Via the Crow, it replaced the divergent Plateau Sign Language[citation needed] among the eastern nations that used it, the Coeur d'Alene, Sanpoil, Okanagan, Thompson, Lakes, Shuswap, and Colville in British Columbia, Washington, and Idaho, with western nations shifting instead to Chinook Jargon.[11]


Sign language use has been documented across speakers of at least 37 spoken languages in twelve families,[12] spread across an area of over 2.6 million square kilometres (1 million square miles).[7][9] In recent history, it was highly developed among the Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Kiowa, among others, and remains strong among the Crow, Cheyenne and Arapaho.

The various nations with attested use, divided by language family, are:

A distinct form is also reported from the Wyandot of Ohio.[citation needed]

It is known that Navajo has a comparably sizeable population of individuals who can speak the Navajo dialect of Plains Sign Language. There is also an unrelated sign language, Navajo Family Sign, in a clan of Navajos that has several deaf members.[13][14]

There exists a variety of Plains Sign Language within the Blackfoot Confederacy. Little is known about the language beyond that it is used by Deaf community members, as well as by the community at large, to pass on oral traditions and stories.[15]


See also: American Sign Language phonology

Types of hand positions in sign language. Positions A through L. A: Fist, palm outward, horizontal. B: Fist, back outward, oblique upward. C: Clinched, with thumb extended against forefinger, upright, edge outward. D: Clinched, ball of thumb against middle of forefinger, oblique, upward, palm down. E: Hooked, thumb against end of forefinger, upright, edge outward. F: Hooked, thumb against side of forefinger, oblique, palm outward. G: Fingers resting against ball of thumb, back upward. H: Arched, thumb horizontal against end of forefinger, back upward. I: Closed, except forefinger crooked against end of thumb, upright, palm outward. J: Forefinger straight, upright, others closed, edge outward. K: Forefinger obliquely extended upward, others closed, edge outward. L: Thumb vertical, forefinger horizontal, others closed, edge outward.
Types of hand positions in sign language. Positions M through Y. M: Forefinger horizontal, fingers and thumb closed, palm outward. N: First and second fingers straight upward and separated, remaining fingers and thumb closed, palm outward. 0: Thumb, first and second fingers separated, straight upward, remaining fingers curved edge outward. P: Fingers and thumb partially curved upward and separated, knuckles outward. Q: Fingers and thumb, separated, slightly curved, downward. R: Fingers and thumb extended straight, separated, upward. S: Hand and fingers upright, joined, back outward. T: Hand and fingers upright, joined, palm outward. U: Fingers collected to a point, thumb resting in middle. V: Arched, joined, thumb resting near end of forefinger, downward. X: Hand horizontal, flat, palm upward. W: Hand horizontal, flat, palm downward. Y: Naturally relaxed, normal; used when hand simply follows arm with no intentional disposition.
Garrick Mallery's original 1880 handshape glossary[16]

La Mont West, working under the guidance of Alfred Kroeber and Charles F. Voegelin, was an early pioneer in not only the phonological analysis of Plains Sign Language but sign language phonology in general. In his unpublished dissertation, he developed a notation system and analysed Plains Sign Language as having eighty-two phonemes, which he called kinemes, each being able to be broken down further in terms of features. He analyzed signs as morphologically complex that others such as William Stokoe would analyze as monomorphemic, and many of his findings were later rediscovered.[17] His study of Plains Sign Language was taking place at the same time as Stokoe's seminal studies of ASL phonology.[9]: 85 

West analyzed Plains Sign Language as having non-isolable phonemes classified as handshapes, directions, referents, motions or motion-patterns, and dynamics. Four of these parallel the now widely recognized sign language parameters handshape, orientation, location, and movement, which arose out of Stokoe’s and other researchers’ later work on a variety of sign languages. The fifth, dynamic, is unique to West’s analysis, though it may be present in other sign languages as well. West argued that this analysis avoids the issue of having signs consisting of a single phoneme be composed of multiple morphemes:[18]: 5 [9]: 134–135 [19]

A phoneme cannot occur in isolation, although a morpheme may consist of only one phoneme.[18]: 6 


There are twelve dynamic phonemes, working similarly to suprasegmentals like stress or tone in that while every sign must be made with some speed or force, only certain ones are marked. Dynamics can either change the way another phoneme, like a handshape or motion, is realized, or modify the entire package or sub-package.[18]: 5, 15 

Phoneme-level dynamics

Motion dynamic
By default, the movement in a motion takes place at the elbow. A motion may be articulated at the wrist instead, in which case it is said to have an additional phoneme combined with it called the motion dynamic. If wrist movement is done in addition to another movement, the motion dynamic has been combined with a long extent dynamic.[18]: 37 

There are two phonemic stresses, tense and lax, as well as the default unmarked stress. When combined with a handshape, these correspond respectively to over- and underextension of the hand’s extended parts compared to the basic handshape.

With motions, they characterize the motion as either strong and fast or weak and slow. A motion can also combine with two stress dynamics, with one specifying the tension of a motion as either tense or light, and the other the speed. When no stress dynamic is present, motions default to an intermediate force and speed, and tension is irrelevant.[18]: 42 


The long and short phonemic extents represent lengths in a variety of contexts. With a referent, they specify that the hand is held far from or close to the referent, relative to the default distance.

With a motion, they specify the length of the motion as long or short, with the default length being mid-length.[18]: 42  Lengthening a motion moves the articulation from the elbow to the shoulder.[18]: 37 

They may also combine with a stress dynamic or another extent dynamic, in which case they exaggerate them.
Rounding or diphthongizing

This non-phonemic dynamic serves two purposes. It is used with the unrounded handshapes to generate the rounded handshapes, like how voicing can generate voiced consonants from unvoiced ones.

It can also be used to diphthongize any two directions to form a compromise direction midway between them, which West compared to doubly articulated consonants. He noted that while doubly articulated consonants are usually described as separate phonemes, the number of diphthongized pairs of directions in Plains Sign Language is too great to grant them all phonemic status.[18]: 39 

Package-level dynamics

By default, a sign can be made with either hand, though the right hand is more common. However, a sign can also be specified as being left-handed, made symmetrically with both hands, made in parallel with both hands, or made in parallel with both hands alternating.[18]: 39 
A package can be repeated either exactly, progressively (starting where the last iteration ended), or erratically (with different, random directions each time).[18]: 40 


The smallest executable unit under West’s analysis is called the package, which he compared to the spoken syllable. A package must have exactly one nucleus, a handshape and a direction, notated PO. A sub-package is defined as a single, non-diphthongized direction and its associated non-direction phonemes.[18]: 70 

There are almost no restrictions on the co-occurrence of members of different phonemic classes within a package, especially between handshapes, directions, motion-classes, and dynamics. Since some referents are quite rare, it is difficult to tell whether there are limits to their combinatorial privileges.[18]: 18 

Clusters of multiple phonemes of the same class within a package are, in contrast, heavily restricted. Handshapes rarely cluster, referents never do, and clustering between dynamics is limited by sub-class and extremely infrequent. Motion-patterns can only form clusters of two, where one of the motion-patterns must be oscillation/vibration.[18]: 42  The phonemic class with the most combinatorial privilege is the direction; any two directions may be clustered using the diphthongizing dynamic.[18]: 18 

Phonological processes

The possible forms of signs are heavily constrained.[20]: 71  Most signs are one-handed, including all function signs,[21]: 11  and these one-handed signs can be divided into static signs or those with movement. Two-handed signs are limited to signs where both hands are still, where one hand stays still and the other moves, or where both hands move. When both hands move, they move together in either parallel or intersecting motion.[21]: 2–3 [9]: 96  The prevalence of one-handed signs in auxiliary sign languages like Plains Sign Language may be typological, as primary sign languages tend to prefer two-handed signs.[22]

These constraints parallel the Symmetry and Dominance Conditions later found in ASL. The Symmetry Condition requires that two-handed signs in which both hands move must be symmetrical in motion, while the Dominance Condition says that in two-handed signs involving two different handshapes, the passive hand is limited to certain movements and handshapes.[9]: 96  Preliminary analysis has shown that Plains Sign Language seems to adhere to these conditions, and also favours unmarked handshapes.[9]: 139–140 

West describes extensive allophony, the conditioning environments of which can be highly specific.[18]: 43 


Users of Plains Sign Language show extensive prosodic structure, which West divided into syllable-like packages and sub-packages, word-like individual signs, sentence-like phrases, and paragraph-like utterances. Except for the package and in stark contrast to most deaf sign languages, where signs often flow freely into each other, the boundaries of each of these prosodic units are consistently marked with one of three junctures:

Paragraph-final juncture
The hands are crossed or folded over the lower stomach if standing, or in the lap if sitting.
Phrase-final juncture

The hands move partway towards the paragraph-final juncture position but recoil before reaching it.

Two variants have the hands clasped near the chest or, if sitting, the palms lightly touched to the thighs, though this variant is rarer. Either of the two variants can be made emphatic, in which case a strong and audible clap or slap is made instead. The emphatic variants are more common in the northern Plains dialects of Saskatchewan and northern Alberta.

Sign-final juncture
The hands recoil slightly toward the chest or shoulder, or alternatively, a slight pause is made. The pause variant may be a marker of casual conversation as opposed to what speakers described as a more elegant register.

The paragraph-final juncture exclusively marks the beginnings and ends of complete utterances, each having approximately the length and content of a paragraph. It may be dropped at the beginning of an utterance.

The paragraph- and phrase-final junctures can be used interchangeably between signs. The paragraph-final juncture is more frequently used to separate list items and complete, sentence-like ideas, while the phrase-final juncture is preferred after incomplete ideas or dangling clauses and is more likely to appear everywhere else.

Any signs not separated by either the paragraph- or phrase-final juncture are near-universally separated by the sign-final juncture, as well as packages within an open compound, where multiple signs are used as a unit to refer to some idea or thing. Paragraph- and phrase-final junctures are extremely rare within open compounds. The largest units not separated by a juncture at all are unit signs, which can be a single package, a package and a handshape or terminal referent, a repeated package, or a closed compound, where multiple signs form a new sign.[18]: 53–56 


As Plains Indian Sign Language was widely understood among different tribes, a written, graphic transcription of these signs is known to have functioned as a medium of communication between Native Americans on and off reservations during the period of American colonization, removal, and forced schooling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The letter of a Kiowa student, Belo Cozad, in 1890 sent to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania from his parents on a reservation in Oklahoma made use of such signs and becomes one of the few known indigenous written transcriptions of the Kiowa language.[23]

See also


  1. ^ a b Recognition of Sign Language as an Official Language Act (Bill 273). Legislative Assembly of Ontario. 2007.
  2. ^ Rice, Keren (2020). "Langues des signes autochtones au Canada". In Wilson-Smith, Anthony (ed.). L’Encyclopédie canadienne (in French).
  3. ^ Public Services and Procurement Canada (October 27, 2020). "TERMIUM Plus®". Government of Canada. Retrieved August 7, 2023.
  4. ^ "Indian Sign Language Council of 1930" – via
  5. ^ a b c Davis, Jeffery E. (2016). "Sign Language, Indigenous". In Gertz, Genie; Boudreault, Patrick (eds.). The SAGE Deaf Studies Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. SAGE Publications. pp. 783–786. ISBN 9781483346489.
  6. ^ a b Hilleary, Cecily (April 3, 2017). "Native American Hand Talkers Fight to Keep Sign Language Alive". Voice of America. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  7. ^ a b c d McKay-Cody, Melanie Raylene (1998). "Plains Indian Sign Language: A comparative study of alternative and primary signers". In Carroll, Cathryn (ed.). Deaf Studies V: Toward 2000—Unity and Diversity. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press. ISBN 1893891097.
  8. ^ Neisser, Arden (1983). The Other Side of Silence. Gallaudet University Press. pp. 91–92. ISBN 9780930323646.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Davis, Jeffrey E. (2010), Hand talk: Sign language among American Indian nations, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521690300
  10. ^ Wurtzburg, Susan; Campbell, Lyle (1995). "North American Indian Sign Language: Evidence of Its Existence before European Contact". International Journal of American Linguistics. 61 (2): 153–167. doi:10.1086/466249. ISSN 0020-7071. JSTOR 1265726. S2CID 144965865.
  11. ^ Flynn, Darin (August 16, 2017). "Indigenous sign languages in Canada". University of Calgary. Retrieved July 17, 2023.
  12. ^ Davis, Jeffrey E. (2006). "A historical linguistic account of sign language among North American Indians". In Lucas, Ceil (ed.). Multilingualism and Sign Languages: From the Great Plains to Australia. Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities. Vol. 12. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press. pp. 3–35.
  13. ^ Supalla, Samuel J. (1992). The Book of Name Signs. DawnSignPress. p. 22. ISBN 9780915035304.
  14. ^ Davis, Jeffrey; Supalla, Samuel (1995). "A Sociolinguistic Description of Sign Language Use in a Navajo Family". In Lucas, Ceil (ed.). Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities. Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities. Vol. 1. Gallaudet University Press. pp. 77–106. ISBN 9781563680366.
  15. ^ "Language". Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. Retrieved October 5, 2015.
  16. ^ Mallery 1881.
  17. ^ Hulst, Harry van der (2022). "The (early) history of sign language phonology". In Dresher, B. Elan; Hulst, Harry van der (eds.). The Oxford History of Phonology. Oxford University Press. pp. 783–786. ISBN 9781483346489.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q West, La Mont (1960). The Sign Language, An Analysis (PhD thesis). Vol. I. Indiana University. ProQuest 301872594.
  19. ^ Tree, Erich Fox (2009). "Meemul Tziij: An Indigenous Sign Language Complex of Mesoamerica". Sign Language Studies. 9 (3): 347. ISSN 0302-1475. JSTOR 26190558.
  20. ^ Voegelin, C. F. (1958). "Sign Language Analysis, on One Level or Two?". International Journal of American Linguistics. 24 (1): 71–77. doi:10.1086/464434. ISSN 0020-7071. JSTOR 1264173. S2CID 143152073.
  21. ^ a b Kroeber, A. L. (1958). "Sign Language Inquiry". International Journal of American Linguistics. 24 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1086/464429. ISSN 0020-7071. JSTOR 1264168. S2CID 144797783.
  22. ^ Etxepare, Ricardo; Irurtzun, Aritz (2021-05-10). "Gravettian hand stencils as sign language formatives". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 376 (1824). doi:10.1098/rstb.2020.0205. ISSN 0962-8436. PMC 8059529. PMID 33745310.
  23. ^ "Who put Native American sign language in the US mail?". OUPblog. Oxford University Press. May 9, 2018.

Further reading