Hand Talk

posted by Jason Kottke   May 25, 2023

Hand Talk sign language has been used by indigenous communities for thousands of years as a lingua franca between groups and tribes that didn't share a common spoken language. Hand Talk is an endangered language — the US government tried to eradicate indigenous languages starting the late 1800s — but it's still in use today.

This was fascinating. For example, as with all languages, Hand Talk vocabulary reveals how they thought about everyday concepts like time:

For example, let's take the simple question: "How old are you?" First, there's a single sign for "question." So for a question about someone's age, you'd use the motion for question with the motion for "winter". How many winters are you? That's what I ask. In PISL you measure months by moons, days by the sun. And to refer to different times of day, you would show hand placement according to the position of the sun in the sky. So this sign for morning, afternoon, or night.

Hand Talk was also one of the influences on ASL and the borrowing of vocabulary between the two language groups continues.