Ukrainian Sign Language
Українська жестова мова
Ukrayinska Zhestova Mova
Native toUkraine
Native speakers
54,000 (2008)[1]
Official status
Regulated byDepartment of Sign Language Education at the Institute of Special Education of National Academy of Educational Sciences of Ukraine
Language codes
ISO 639-3ukl

Ukrainian Sign Language (USL) (Ukrainian: Українська жестова мова (УЖМ), romanizedUkrayinska zhestova mova (UZhM)) is the sign language of the deaf community of Ukraine.[2] Ukrainian Sign Language belongs to the family of French sign languages.[citation needed] Worldwide awareness of Ukrainian Sign Language rose sharply in 2014 after the release of a Ukrainian film The Tribe, where actors communicated in Ukrainian Sign Language with no spoken dialogue.[3][4][5][6][7][8]

History and education

The teaching of Ukrainian Sign Language to deaf students began in the early 1800s,[9] when a number of branches of the Vienna School for the Deaf were opened in Ukraine, namely the Institute for Deaf in Volyn in 1805[9] in Romaniv,[9][10] then the Halychyna School for the Deaf in 1830 in Lviv[9][11] and a few years later the Odesa School for the Deaf in 1843 in Odesa.[9][10]

During the Soviet occupation of Ukraine, the development of teaching methods for Ukrainian sign language slowed down considerably, since the use of Ukrainian sign language in educational systems of the USSR was banned[12] soon after the negative feedback given by Joseph Stalin to sign languages in his 1950 article Marxism and Problems of Linguistics. In it, Stalin called deaf people "anomalous human beings" and described gesture language as "not a language at all, but a surrogate".[13][14]

The use of Ukrainian sign language in educating deaf people in Ukraine didn't get reintroduced until 2006.[15] As of 1 January 2015, there were 39 preschools for deaf children in Ukraine teaching pre-schoolers (6 years or younger);[16] there were 61 specialized secondary schools for children with hearing impairments teaching deaf pupils ages 6 through 18 (this includes both day-time schools and boarding schools). However, most schools emphasize oral proficiency in Ukrainian and do not encourage use of USL.[16]

From 2006 to 2016, the governing body that publishes language textbooks and research articles and regulates the methods of teaching Ukrainian sign language[17] was the Laboratory of sign language at the Institute of Special Education of National Academy of Educational Sciences of Ukraine.[18] It was established in 2006.[19][20] In 2016 it was reorganized into Department of sign language at the Institute of Special Education of National Academy of Educational Sciences of Ukraine.[21]

Since the Russian invasion of February 2022, the expert committee at the Ukrainian Society of the Deaf has been working to derussify Ukrainian Sign Language and fingerspelling, eradicating Russianisms and other Russian influences that were forcibly imposed in the Soviet period and reconstructing historical signs, developing new signs and fingerspelling, and adopting international gestures.[22]


The Ukrainian Society of the Deaf (Ukrainian: Українське товариство глухих, УТОГ, UTOG) was established in 1933, and since 1957 has been a permanent member of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) as well as a member of the WFD Eastern Europe and Middle Asia Regional Secretariat. UTOG was established as an organization of Ukrainians with hearing impairments, both deaf and hearing-impaired ones, to provide them with assistance in their professional, labor and social rehabilitation, in protecting their lawful rights and interests and in asserting themselves as citizens that are fully integrated into society. Excluding hearing impaired in the temporarily Russia-occupied Ukrainian regions of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, there were 43,108 registered Ukrainian nationals with hearing impairments as of 1 January 2015, of whom 38,746 persons are members of UTOG (approximately 90%).[16]

USL research

In 2007 Western Canadian Centre of Studies in Deafness at the University of Alberta established the Ukrainian Sign Language Project,[12] headed by Dr. Debra Russell, to support the recognition of USL as the language of instruction for Deaf children in Ukraine. Its outcomes were projected to document USL, create a USL teaching curriculum for teacher education and parents of Deaf children, formalize the training of interpreters, and improve the training of teachers of the Deaf.[23]

Relationship between USL and RSL/MSL

One 2005 study is suggestive of some sort of relationship between USL and the sign languages of Russia and Moldova, but does not provide any conclusive evidence as to whether they are the same or different languages. In a 2005 study of Eastern European signed languages, a wordlist from Ukrainian Sign Language had about 70% similarity to wordlists from Russian Sign Language and Moldovan Sign Language. Noting that these three SLs had as high a lexical similarity as what was "found within certain countries, although not as high as what was found within ASL",[24] the author recommended that "these countries should be investigated further to see how much difference there is between them: whether they represent different dialects of the same language or closely-related languages,"[25] and that future, more detailed, study should "use more precise measures such as intelligibility testing, rather than relying on wordlist comparisons alone."[24] The study's closing remarks warn against inappropriate interpretation of the results, noting that "a preliminary survey of this sort is not meant to provide definitive results about the relatedness or identity of different languages. Besides the various caveats mentioned above, another important factor is that lexical similarity is only one facet of what is involved in comparing languages. Grammatical structure and other differences can be just as significant; two languages can have very similar vocabulary but enough other differences to make it difficult for people to communicate with each other.".[26]

chart of letters in the Ukrainian manual alphabet, with Ukrainian Cyrillic script equivalents
The Ukrainian manual alphabet.


Ukrainian Sign Language uses a one-handed manual alphabet, or fingerspelling, based on the alphabet used in Old French Sign Language, but adapted to spell out words from the Ukrainian language. Known as the Ukrainian manual alphabet, it consists of 33 signs which make use of the 23 handshapes of USL. Some of these signs thus share handshapes; for example, the signs for Г & Ґ use the same handshape but in one the thumb is still, while in the other it moves up and down.

In USL as in other sign languages, fingerspelling serves as a type of borrowing from Ukrainian. It is used for proper nouns, for technical terms with no native USL equivalent, abbreviations of longer Ukrainian words, and some colloquial Ukrainian words. Fingerspelling may also be used instead of a synonymous sign for emphasis.

A common misconception is that USL consists only of fingerspelling. Although communication using only fingerspelling has been used, it is not USL.

Use in films

See also

Relevant literature


  1. ^ Ukrainian Sign Language at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
  2. ^ Ukrainian Sign Language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  3. ^ Deaf Actors Excel in Emotive Silent Movie - The Tribe - SLFirst Deaf Magazine, 29 April 2015
  4. ^ Interview: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy - Film Comment, 19 June 2015
  5. ^ Louisiana International Film Festival releases full lineup for 2015: See the schedule -, April 28, 2015
  6. ^ 'The Tribe' Is the Best Ukrainian Sign Language Movie So Far This Year – Vice, 14 January 2015
  7. ^ The Tribe – Ukrainian Sign Language Film Winning Praises – Ukie Daily, 17 June 2015
  8. ^ All Sign Language, No Subtitles: Behind the Ukrainian Thriller That’s Changing How We Experience Cinema – Yes Magazine, Jul 17, 2015
  9. ^ a b c d e Кульбіда Світлана Вікторівна. Теоретико-методичні засади використання жестової мови у навчанні нечуючих. Автореферат дисертації на здобуття наукового ступеня доктора педагогічних наук. Київ – 2010. Інститут спеціальної педагогіки Національна академія педагогічних наук України, ст. 10 - / Kyl'bida Svitlana Viktorivna. Theoretic & Methodological Concepts of Using Sign Language in Educating Deaf. Summary of a Phd Thesis in Pedagogical Sciences. Kyiv - 2010. Institute of Special Education of the National Academy of Educational Sciences of Ukraine, p 10 (in Ukrainian)
  10. ^ a b Тищенко О. Кульбіда С. Українська жестова мова глухих як об'єкт лексикографічної параметризації, Інститут української мови Національної академії наук України, Київ, 2005 / Tyshchenko O. Kylbida S. Ukrainian sign language as an object of lexical parametrization. Institute for the Ukrainian Language of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Kyiv, 2005 (in Ukrainian)
  11. ^ Ukrainian Catholic University reaches out to the deaf - The Ukrainian Weekly, #31, 1 August 2010
  12. ^ a b University leads study of Ukrainian Sign Language - University of Alberta, Express News. 8 May 2007
  13. ^ І. Кобель. Українська глуха дитина в чуючій родині, 18.09.2010 / I. Kobel. Ukrainian deaf child in a non-deaf family 18.09.2010 - retrieved from Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine
  14. ^ Parental Insights: A survey of the challenges of raising young children with hearing loss in Ukraine - International Journal of Disability, Community & Rehabilitation, Volume 14, No. 1; ISSN 1703-3381
  15. ^ Kobel, Ihor. "Raising a Deaf Child in a Hearing Family in Ukraine." 232 p. (2014); 106, 155-156 pp - Lambert Academic Publishing, ISBN 978-3659577727 retrieved on 2.24.2016
  16. ^ a b c Alternative Answers to the List of Issues for Ukraine. Prepared by the Ukrainian Society of the Deaf - UN Human Rights - Office of the High Commissioner, retrieved on 2.23.2016
  17. ^ Здобутки Лабораторії жестової мови / Accomplishments of the Laboratory of sign languages (in Ukrainian)
  18. ^ Institute of Special Education of National Academy of Educational Sciences of Ukraine - Sign Language Research Laboratory (in Ukrainian)
  19. ^ Лабораторія жестової мови - Інститут спеціальної педагогіки Національної академії педагогічних наук України / Laboratory of sign language at the Institute of Special Education of National Academy of Educational Sciences of Ukraine - retrieved on 2.23.2016 (in Ukrainian)
  20. ^ The Steps Ukrainian Science in the Study and Popularization the Ukrainian Sign Language // Svitlana Kulbida. Issues of upbringing and teaching in the context ofmodern conditions of objective complication of the person’s social adaptation processes. Peer-reviewed materials digest (collective monograph) published following the results of the CXXXVIII International Research and Practice Conferenceand I stage of the Championship in Psychology and Educational sciences (London, February 9- February 15, 2017). pp 26–28
  21. ^ Лабораторії жестової мови — 10 років // Наше життя, 03/03/2016 (in Ukrainian)
  22. ^ Khrebet, Alexander (24 November 2023). "'Flicking' away Russia: Ukrainians de-Russify sign language". The Kyiv Independent. Retrieved 1 December 2023.
  23. ^ Ukrainian Sign Language Project - University of Alberta, David Peikoff Chair of Deaf Studies & Western Canadian Centre of Studies in Deafness (WCCSD)
  24. ^ a b Bickford, 2005. The Signed Languages of Eastern Europe, p 33
  25. ^ Bickford, 2005. The Signed Languages of Eastern Europe, p 29
  26. ^ Bickford, 2005. The Signed Languages of Eastern Europe, p 32
  27. ^ Diaspora as a factor in strengthening the Ukrainian State within the international community. The Ukrainian diaspora in the global context. Summary of the Reports. International Institute of education, culture and relations with the diaspora at the NU "Lviv Polytechnic". 2008. ISBN 966-553-512-9 (in Ukrainian and English)
  28. ^ Kobel, I. (2009). Ukrainian hearing parents and their deaf children (Doctoral dissertation, University of Alberta) 233 pp.