Some characteristics of Australian Aboriginal sign languages with hints for further questions for exploration

lcj-16Adam Kendon

LCJ: Special Edition: Indigneous Sign Languages, 16, pp. 6-13

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Kendon, A. (2015). Some characteristics of Australian Aboriginal sign languages with hints for further questions for exploration. Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts [Special Issue: Indigenous Sign Languages], 16, 6-13. DOI:



When Europeans first began to venture from the coastal areas of what is today New South Wales and travel inland to areas of Australia beyond the Murray River Basin, it was noted, from time to time, the Aborigines encountered appeared to be using hand movements or “signs” as a means of communication. Probably the earliest report, published in 1874, is by Samuel Gason from South Australia. He noted the Dieri (as the local people were then known) made use of what appeared to be a complex sign language, which, he suggested, may have been connected to speech taboo practices associated with mourning. He claimed to have a thorough knowledge of this sign language, declaring it could be used for conversing about anything. He did not try to describe it, however, maintaining that to do so was beyond the capacity of words (Gason 1874, p. 35). After Gason’s publication, several other reports appeared. For example, Spencer and Gillen, in 1899, described how women among the Warumungu used very complex signing, when, in mourning the death of a husband (and also certain other categories of male relatives), the practice was to avoid speaking altogether, sometimes for very extended periods (Spencer & Gillen 1899).  In 1897, W.E. Roth published a detailed description of the use of signs in his monograph on the aborigines of Northwest Central Queensland (Roth, 1897). The many signs Roth described were (almost certainly) explained to him by men, and it was the use of signs as a means of communicating over distances that first brought this signing to his attention. 

These sign languages are not related to deafness, but were developed by speaker-hearers evidently to serve as a means of communication for use in circumstances when to use speech would either be impractical or inconvenient, or when, for ritual reasons it was forbidden. I have referred to them as alternate sign languages, to distinguish them from primary sign languages, which develop in communities of deaf persons, or in communities which contain a high proportion of deaf persons. Here the signing is developed by people who have no access or very limited access to spoken language. Alternate sign languages have been described for some societies other than those of Australia. Those used by the North American Indians are quite well known (see Mallery 1972 [1881] and Davis 2010). There are several reports of sign use among hunter-gatherers in southern Africa (Mohr & Fehn 2012) and also from the forest-dwelling Pygmies of the Congo (Lewis 2009), as well as hunting societies from several other parts of the world (Divale and Zipin 1977).  Certain European religious orders forbade speech in everyday life, and sign languages were developed in these communities. Umiker-Sebeok & Sebeok (1987) provide a collection of accounts of such sign languages, which may be centuries old (see also Bruce 2007). Comparative discussions of these and other alternate sign languages may be found in Kendon (1988, Chapter 13) and Pfau (2012).  

A survey of the Australian reports from 1874 onwards into the middle years of the twentieth century, allowed me to propose (see Kendon 1988, Chapter 3) what appears to have been the pattern of sign language use throughout the continent before the presence of Europeans had had much impact on Aboriginal life. Sign languages were not reported from either the Eastern or the South Western coastal areas, they were not reported to be in use in southern New South Wales, Victoria, nor Tasmania. However, for the desert areas of South Australia, and northwards and westwards from there, there were enough reports of signing to suggest that it was in common use throughout these regions. This was also the case in the Cape York Peninsula and in northern and western Queensland. Reports of its use in the Kimberleys are scarce; it is only in Eastern Arnhem Land that we again encounter reports of its use (as we know from recent observation it is still in use there today). Signing was also reported to be in use in the Torres Straits islands (Haddon 1907). 


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