Lauren Reed is off to Kentucky to deliver a poster about her research

Lauren Reed

New research on Indigenous sign language in Papua New Guinea

23rd June 2017

Lauren Reed grew up with two deaf siblings. Her research into an indigenous sign language in Papua New Guinea, with Professor Alan Rumsey of the School of Culture History and Language has been awarded a Fellowship to attend the prestigious Linguistic Institute of the Linguistic Society of America, this year being hosted by the University of Kentucky.

‘The fact that in the 70s people thought that deaf people were just doing ‘dumb’ pantomime and gesture, the fact that the word ‘dumb’ is still used to describe deaf people motivates my research. I am passionate about ensuring that deaf language is valued as much as hearing language.

‘There is still a common misconception that all deaf people in the world speak one sign language. People are often surprised to learn there are many around the world. My research contributes to improving wider community understanding of how rich deaf language really is,' explains Reed.

‘Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse place on earth. It’s got around 1% of the world’s total area, 0.1% of the world’s population and 20% of the world’s languages. Many of those languages are completely undocumented so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the sign languages of the country are also undocumented.

'The rich diversity of Papua New Guinean languages have so much to offer deaf linguistics.' said Reed.

Alan Rumsey and Francesca Merlan have been working for over 30 years with the community of Kailge, in the Papua New Guinea highlands, focussing on various aspects of the language and culture of the local Ku Waru people. In 2015, Alan video recorded a lot of stories told by two deaf men there. The deaf men were signing with each other and also with two other hearing men who could both sign fluently.

‘This is only the second time sign language has been observed and documented in Papua New Guinea. In 1975 Adam Kendon, who also worked at ANU researching Indigenous Australian sign languages, carried out fieldwork in a neighbouring province. ‘He noted that people could understand the sign languages in other villages, because they had deaf relatives. What we are wondering is: how widespread is this sign language? Could it be a ‘Highlands sign language’ and not just particular to Kailge community?

‘Given that in the Papua New Guinea highlands there are extensive trading networks that are shared, it would be unlikely that the sign language is isolated to one village. Alan’s hypothesis is that it is shared across a wide area. ‘If so, this means that the language is likely to be an unrecorded one,’ she explains.

Sign language linguistics has lagged behind spoken language linguistics. It wasn’t until the 1970s that sign languages were even recognised as real languages. ANU was at the forefront of language documentation in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s and 1980s; as it is now is hopes to become with indigenous sign languages.

‘The term is still undecided for these languages. Some people call them rural sign languages, village sign language, indigenous sign languages.

‘These are not spoken exclusively by deaf people, but both deaf and hearing people in the community. Sometimes there are a greater proportion of hearing signers than deaf signers and this has an interesting effect on the language. It’s also interesting because hearing people feel the need to assimilate to the deaf and the onus is on the hearing to communicate with the deaf, not the other way around as it is in the Western world.larger urban communities.

‘In the grammar of regular sign languages facial expressions are very important, and vocalisations also play a big part. A large percentage of signs have a vocal element. For instance in British sign language the sign for ‘geography’ and ‘garage’ are the same, but it’s the mouth movement that disambiguates distinguishes those two signs.

‘The vast majority of mouth actions in deaf community sign languages, of which there have been so far four major studies, are mouthings, essentially echoes of the spoken language. The existing theory is that the largest percentage of mouth actions in any sign language will have a spoken-language link.

‘What we have found in our initial observations of Ku Waru sign is that there are basically no mouthings. The mouth actions are seemingly arbitrary sounds, for example there is a pop and a sucking of teeth that don’t have any relationship to the spoken language. This could be a typological feature of village sign language that deaf community sign languages don’t have.’

Lauren will be presenting a poster on these initial observations of mouth actions at the Linguistic Institute. ‘One of the largest studies of mouth actions concluded that more data is needed, particularly from lesser studied village sign languages, to see if this trend holds. My research shows that it does not hold for all languages,’ says Reed.

Lauren is a Masters student at the Centre of Excellence Dynamics of Language hosted at the School of Culture, History and Language at ANU.

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster