Manually coded language

Manually coded languages are not themselves languages but are representations of oral languages in a gestural-visual form; that is, signed versions of oral languages (signed languages). Unlike the sign languages that have evolved naturally in deaf communities, which have distinct spatial structures, these manual codes (MCL) are the conscious invention of deaf and hearing educators, and mostly follow the grammar of the oral language—or, more precisely, of the written form of the oral language. They have been mainly used in deaf education in an effort to "represent English on the hands" and by sign language interpreters in K-12 schools, although they have had some influence on deaf sign languages where their implementation was widespread.


It is unknown when the first attempts were made to represent an oral language with gesture. Indeed, some have speculated that oral languages may have evolved from sign languages, and there may be undocumented cases in history when vocal and signed modes of a language existed side by side. It is not uncommon for people to develop gestures to replace words or phrases in contexts where speech is not possible or not permitted, such as in a television studio, but these are usually limited in scope and rarely develop into complete representations of an oral language. One of the most elaborated examples of this kind of auxiliary manual system is Warlpiri Sign Language, a complete signed mode of spoken Warlpiri which was developed by an Indigenous community in central Australia due to cultural proscriptions against speech. Sign language linguists usually make a distinction between these auxiliary sign languages and manually coded languages; the latter are specifically designed for use in Deaf education, and usually represent the written form of the language.

In seventh century England, the years of (672-735CE), Venerable Bede, a Benedictine monk, proposed a system for representing the letters of the Latin script on the fingers called, fingerspelling. Monastic sign languages used throughout medieval Europe used manual alphabets as well as signs, and were capable of representing a written language, if one had enough patience. Aside from the commonly understood rationale of observing "vows of silence", they also served as mnemonics (memory aids) for preachers.[1] These manual alphabets began to be used to teach the deaf children of royalty in 17th century Spain. Such alphabets are in widespread use today by signing deaf communities for representing words or phrases of the oral language used in their part of the world.

The earliest known attempt to develop a complete signed mode of a language which could be used to teach deaf children was by the Abbé de l'Épée, an educator from 18th century France. While the Deaf community already used a sign language (now known as Old French Sign Language), Épée thought it must be primitive, and set about designing a complete visual-gestural system to represent the concepts of religion and law that he wanted to impart to his pupils. His system of signes méthodiques (usually known in English as "Methodical Signs") was quite idiosyncratic, and although it wasn't a strict representation of French, its success laid the groundwork for the "signed oral languages" of today. The real proliferation of such systems occurred in the latter half of the 20th century, and by the 1980s, manually coded languages were the dominant form of communication used by teachers and interpreters in classrooms with deaf students in many parts of the world. Most sign language "interpreting" seen on television in the 1970s and 1980s would have in fact been a transliteration of an oral language into a manually coded language.

The emerging recognition of sign languages in recent times has curbed the growth of manually coded languages, and in many places, interpreting and educational services now favor the use of the natural sign languages of the Deaf community. In some parts of the world, MCLs continue to be developed and supported by state institutions; a contemporary example is Arabic Sign Language. Some MCL systems (such as the Paget Gorman Sign System) have survived by shifting their focus from deaf education to people with other kinds of communication needs.

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