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Very few people know this, but in Canada we have four to five distinct signed languages. All of which, yes, aredistinct, humanlanguages. (So, ASL ≠ English, BSL ≠ English, LSQ ≠ French, etc.).
“But, why four to five?” you may ask. Simple, really. We have: American Sign Language (ASL) Langue des signes québécois (LSQ) ᐃᓄᐃᐆᒃ (InuiuukorInuit Sign Language) Plains Sign Language (PSL) Maritime Sign Language (~MSL)
The ‘to’ bit is because MSL (not the actual name for it; English just uses “Maritime Sign Language”) is either still its own language or has become a dialect of ASL. But, this I will explain later.
Let’s start off with this term: Language Families.
A language family is like a family tree. People and relatives on one family tree are related to one another, and those not on the family tree are not. People not on your family tree share less genetic code and do not exhibit the same traits as people on your family tree do (so red-hair gets passed down as does eye colour and the like).
Languages act the same way: languages in the same tree have similar traits and you can match characteristics even if Great Aunt Mildred shares almost nothing in common with you, you can still find similarities (even if that means going into your genetic code to see if she passed down that rare form of cancer she had).
Ever heard that English was a Germanic language or that French is a Romance language? Those terms are saying that English is in the Germanic Language Family and that French is in the Romance Language Family. What that really means is you can find similarities between German, Dutch, Scots and English in the same way you can find similarities between Spanish, Italian, Romanian and French.
Now, what does this have to do with signed languages? Also, why do you keep saying signed instead of sign?
Well, personally, I prefer signed over sign language because many hearing people have a tendency to hear sign language and assume it is one, universal language (which is oh so wrong).
Moving on… what do language families and signed languages have in common? Well, we established signed languages are unique, human languages, eh? What that leads us to is that all languages (almost) have brother, sister, cousin, grandmother languages. That is true of these Canadian languages (three of which are as Canadian as English and French, the other two are as Canadian as, well, ever … meaning they are indigenous.
Let’s start with the ‘to’ language: MSL. Why is it a ‘to’?
So, older Maritime Sign (MSL) was a part of the BANZSL language family, meaning it came from old-British Sign Language, or BSL (yes, we love our acronyms). When the UK went on its killing spree–*cough* I mean its colonizing spree, it brought with it Deaf settlers who spoke BSL. Those settlers stayed in the Maritimes (see map below) and their language changed from old-BSL to Maritime Sign Language (similar to how old Latin changed to French).
Now, because ASL is a massive, massive language (spoken by most Americans who sign, excluding Deaf Hawai’ians as well as most Canadians who sign), it is taking over linguistics communities in the Maritimes, where more and more people who would have learnt MSL are now learning ASL.
“Why is this bad?” you ask.
Language colonization and language shift is a real, and scary, occurrence. Languages breed culture and vice versa. Loss of a language means loss of a way of looking at the world, a loss of a culture. Just ask any First Nations, Métis or Inuit individual, and they will tell you the same thing.
So, today, it is known that Maritimers that sign as a first language (S.F.L.; think ESL but with 300% more periods in the word) sign in very different ways (yes, signed languages have accents and dialects) where the accent is super strong and the dialect is different. However, this difference is not known if it is its own language still (most words come from BANZSL origin, structures are from BANZSL, etc.) or if it has taken on so much from ASL that it has become a dialect (you know how English has a shit tonne of French-originating words in it [shit tonne, in this case, = 45%], same thing is happening here).
In total, THAT is why MSL may or may not be the fifth Canadian signed language.
Now, moving on to the four that are known.
Let’s start with American Sign Language or ASL. It is spoken all across Canada and the States except in most of Québec where LSQ is spoken. It tends to be in anglophone areas, but that is because education only really provides Deaf individuals ASL–English support instead of ASL–French support. Additionally, ASL has a lot of English borrowings (like how we borrow French’s à la carte or soup du jour), but that has no bearing on the fact that a francophone communities can also have ASL speakers present (which is the case in some extra-Québec communities, in fact).
(there are not a lot of images or gifs of ASL, so here have the translation for “play” in ASL)
ASL is the most common sign language in the world and super well studied especially because the world’s only Deaf university, located in Washington D.C., is taught in ASL. Because of this, I am going to not talk at length about ASL, even though it is the language I speak.
LSQ! Or Langue des signed québécoise!
(remember how I said there are like no resources for ASL … there are fewer for LSQ. So, here is the gif form of the manually encoded French alphabet in LSQ [same as ASL]. Manually encoded means LSQ needed a way to use French non-orally, so people spell out French words when needing to use French while speaking LSQ, so there are about 24 handshapes encoded to the 26 Latin letters of French)
This language is spoken primarily in Québec (except in Montréal where ASL is beginning to displace LSQ*) as well as Ontario, New Brunswick and certain other parts of Canada. It has legal recognition in Ontario alongside ASL in only educational, legislative and judicial domains (ugh.), but nowhere else. It can be found generally in francophone populations (remember: ASL–English bit… Canadian gov’t still sees LSQ and French/ASL and English attached to one another … which, culturally, is correct, but linguistically not at all)
This is really well known in francophone Canada and a tonne of resources can be found on this language in French. So… yeah.
Now for the two native or Indigenous languages of Canada:
Plains Sign Language (PSL) and ᐃᓄᐃᐆᒃ (Inuiuuk)!
PSL was used as a trade language before Chinook Wawa took over in SW Canada, mainly in the, you guessed it, plains or prairies. The range of this language extended down into the States as well, but it is unknown if there are any speakers left in the US. In fact, there is almost zero data on the language within Canada except a handful of people still speak it. This is because StatsCan only collect information on ASL and LSQ (badly, at that), so any info on other signed languages is lost.
(see all those colours? those are oral language families. see the words inside the colours? those are (oral) languages. Note: this is an outdated map, so many names are offensive. also, sorry for the awkward map photos, best I got)
But, let’s focus on trade language for a sec. A trade language is a language used to communicate across linguistic barriers. In Western Canada, there were not only a metric fuck tonne of languages spoken, there were also language families up the wazoo. What this means is international traders from, let’s say, Musqueam to Blackfoot would not know how to communicate. This is where a trade language steps in! They are taught internationally to children and traders to facilitate communication (like English is used worldwide now). Oftentimes, trade languages like PSL or Chinook were not full-fledged languages and worked just enough, however PSL grew out of that into its own language that survives today amongst some First Nations Deaf.
The thinking is ᐃᓄᐃᐆᒃ was also a similar language, but there is no records or data of that, just some correspondence with word origin in far-removed communities. HOWEVER, that being said, Inuiuuk is a language that exists today and is in the process of being documented and trying to be revived! There are programmes at Arctic College and McGill working with both Deaf and hearing Inuit to secure a bright future for the language. In fact, it is being used on the legislative assembly floor of Nunavut.
While it is looking bright, it is a critically endangered language with only about 50 speakers remaining (even though there is less stigma attached to deafness and Deaf culture in Inuit culture, so… yay).
That out there, it is important to note that neither PSL nor Inuiuuk are being recognized for what they are: important Canadian languages. Unlike First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages which are seen as real and important (to varying degrees), Inuiuuk and PSL are hidden, understudied, under-recognized languages, which is detrimental to those communities as it is known that there are at least Inuiuuk monolingual speakers.
Awesome conclusion time!
Take this knowledge and educate others! Signed languages have a major stigma attached to them already, and few Canadians realize we have multiple, n/Native signed languages within Canada. Spread this around: on Tumblr, to friends, to family, online, on Facebook. This is important!
And, who knows? You may one day run into someone whose first language was Inuiuuk, and, gosh darn, you would just make their day if you knew about their language!
(Or at least some of you may stop assuming signed languages are just signed variants of oral languages or assuming that sign language is universal, which, you know, is also a benefit!)