Dorada project logoEuropean Union
Bookcase, one person pulls a book out of the bookcase

Read the article

Is a sign language just waving hands?

In Poland, people with hearing impairment can be divided into two groups. The first one includes people with impaired hearing (to a lesser or greater degree) who use Polish in everyday communication. The second group includes Deaf people1 who communicate using the Polish Sign Language (PSL).

The very debate concerning sign languages demonstrates the inadequacy of the term deaf-mute, which indicates that Deaf people are mute. Deaf people may have difficulty speaking due to the absence of auditory stimuli, but phonic speech is not the only way to communicate. A sign language can be used to convey thoughts and opinions, too. So Deaf people are not mute as they have their own language – the sign language. The legitimate status of sign languages is officially recognised by linguists, but to this day there have been many stereotypes about the Deaf and their language, which contribute to misconceptions among hearing people.

Waving hands or a sign language?

When observing a group of signing Deaf people, one may get the wrong impression that they just use random, uncoordinated hand movements or try to represent and depict the surrounding reality by means of facial expressions and the body. Some sign language signs are in fact iconic, i.e. they bear a resemblance to the signed object. For example, the sign for a HOUSE in PSL is the shape of a gabled roof formed with the hands. However, if indicating the actual meaning were always so easy, communication would resemble a pantomime and hearing people would have no problem understanding Deaf people. In fact, a sign language, in addition to iconic signs, includes an entire range of arbitrary signs, i.e. signs that have no direct reference to the words they signify. The signs that make up the vocabulary of a sign language are conventionalised, i.e. people who are not the sign language users will not be able to recognise their meaning. In other words, in order to understand a sign language you have to learn it, just like any other foreign language.

There is no one universal sign language

Just as there is no single phonemic language worldwide, Deaf people speak different sign languages depending on where they live. According to the data obtained from the linguistic database Ethnologue in 2021, there are 150 sign languages2 . The literature on the subject provides information about 200 visuospatial languages3 . However, this does not mean that this is the exact number, it rather indicates that this is the number known so far. A single sign language may also include vernaculars, just like in the case of phonic languages.

For example, a Deaf person from Silesia may use different signs than a Deaf person from Krakow, but of course this does not prevent mutual communication. The history, mentality and culture of a country undeniably influence the local sign language (e.g. the way of signing or expressivity), but interestingly, not every sign language is derived from a phonic language that is spoken in a given region. For example, the British Sign Language, which is spoken by Deaf people within the UK, has nothing in common with the American Sign Language, which is used by Deaf people living in the USA, even though hearing people in both countries communicate using the same phonic language.

Occasionally, Deaf people are able to communicate with users of other sign languages, even though they did not learn the language before. However, this is not due to the universality of the sign language, but the flexibility of Deaf people and their ability to adapt to the interlocutor in communication. Additionally, there exists a special communication system – International Sign - which is mainly used during international meetings of Deaf people, e.g. at conferences or festivals. Deaf people who know International Sign can communicate using it, but it is not an official language, nor does it replace sign languages used in different countries.

The sign language system and the Polish Sign Language

The sign language system (SLS) is often incorrectly equated with a language.

In reality, SLS is a subcode of the Polish language, articulated using signs. It was not created by Deaf people, but by hearing people. Deaf people most often do not use SLS in everyday communication. It is the Polish Sign Language (PSL) that is the natural language used and created by Deaf people living in Poland. PSL has its own, separate visual-spatial grammar. Some grammatical phenomena which are characteristic for the sign language cannot be found in Polish. These include, for example: classifiers, the incorporation of the numeral or directional verbs. Interesting conclusions were drawn from an experiment4 comparing the neural substrates of SLS and PSL. Deaf people, while watching films depicting sign communication, experience an evident activation of areas in their brain which are responsible for the language data processing. However, greater activation could be observed in the posterior superior temporal cortex of the left hemisphere of the brain when Deaf people received messages in PSL than when they viewed messages in SLS. The results of this study clearly confirm that PSL is a distinct natural language as opposed to SLS, which is merely an artificial communication system.

Communication in a sign language

It is a common perception that only simplified messages can be conveyed in a sign language as its vocabulary is primitive and insufficient to convey complex contents. However, with the help of the sign language, it is possible to convey complex concepts concerning any issue, including highly specialised ones. Sign languages can convey concrete, but also hypothetical or abstract contents. You can refer to past and future events. You can tell a joke, create poetry, and use vulgarisms. Just like in the case of phonic languages, young people and particular professional groups have their own slang. Any lexical deficiencies of sign languages are not due to their limitations. The Polish Sign Language was created about 200 years ago, so it is a relatively young language that is developing dynamically, just like its users. Furthermore, the visual-spatial character of sign languages may prove to be an advantage in situations where phonic languages fail, e.g. in a noisy room.

The Polish Sign Language is the natural language of the Polish Deaf. It not only enables communication but also defines the identity and culture of the Deaf. The sense of alienation and otherness that accompanies many Deaf people trying to communicate through speech disappears in the community of sign language users.


1The capital letter in the word Deaf indicates they have their own cultural and linguistic identity (just like, for example, the ethnic group of the Kashubians)

2D. Eberhard, G. Simons, C. Fennig, Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twenty-fourth edition,, 28.01.2022

3P. Rutkowski, Cele i zakres działań Pracowni Lingwistyki Migowej UW, in: Lingwistyka przestrzeni i ruchu. Komunikacja migowa a metody korpusowe, P. Rutkowski, S. Łozińska (ed.), Warszawa: Wydział Polonistyki Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego 2014, p. 8

4K. Jednoróg et al., Three-dimensional grammar in the brain: Dissociating the neural correlates of natural sign language and manually coded spoken language, ‘Neuropsychologia’ 2015, issue 71, p. 191-200

Reference literature

Eberhard D., Simons G., Fennig C., Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twenty-fourth edition,, 28.01.2022.

Jednoróg K. i in., Three-dimensional grammar in the brain: Dissociating the neural correlates of natural sign language and manually coded spoken language, ‘Neuropsychologia’ 2015, issue 71, p. 191-200.

Łozińska S., Rutkowski, P. (ed.), Lingwistyka przestrzeni i ruchu. Komunikacja migowa a metody korpusowe. Warszawa, Wyd. Wydział Polonistyki Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2014.

Rutkowski P., Opisać język Głuchych, in: ‘Academia - Magazyn Polskiej Akademii Nauk’ 2016, issue 4, pp. 60-64.

Tomaszewski P., Rosik P., Czy polski język migowy jest prawdziwym językiem? w: Człowiek wobec ograniczeń. Niepełnosprawność – Komunikacja – Terapia. Jastrzębowska G., Tarkowski Z. (ed.), Lublin: Fundacja Orator, 2002, pp. 133-165.

About the author

Aneta Uhruska – employee of the Jagiellonian University Accessibility Centre and Polish sign language interpreter. She is responsible for the coordination of the interpretation of University classes, interpretation services for the Jagiellonian University community and training in the Polish Sign Language basics provided to the University employees. Her tasks also involve ensuring information and communication accessibility at the University.