Sign language is a rule-governed language that has its own grammatical rules and symbol system. As such, it meets all the requirements of spoken languages abolishing any dispute as to whether it is really a language or not. The work of William C. Stokoe Jr. ‘Sign Language Structure’ (1960) is the first linguistic analysis of sign language that has actually formed the basis on the later field of research.
Functioning exactly like human languages, sign language substitutes acoustic sounds for hand movements, facial expressions and body postures, forming individual signs of communication. In spoken languages, people use vowels and consonants to form parts and they identify with sound units to form minimal pairs. By using minimal pairs, in effect, they change sounds and they give different meanings to words. For instance, they can spell ‘fit’, ‘sit’, or ‘bit’ and mean three different, unique things. In sign language, instead of using vowels and consonants, parts are formed by hand movements, handshapes, and hand locations. To form a whole new word with a whole new meaning, signers change the location or the movement of a sign since they do not have sounds to spell. Therefore, the most important point that distinguishes sign language from spoken languages is the fact that each sign is formed by a unique combination of a hand movement, handshape, and hand location ranging from the use of simple to more complex ones.
Similarly to spoken languages that words are pronounced differently depending on the geographic location or the background of people, sign language has also the same type and range of variation. Research has identified regional, ethnic, gender and age variations in sign language.
Regional variations are mostly related to how signers from different regions of the U.S. or from different countries of the world use different signs to articulate meanings such as ‘birthday’, ‘Christmas’ or ‘ Halloween’.
Ethnic variations are related to how signers of different racial or ethnic descent sign. For instance, Black signers from the South sign differently than White signers from the South.
Gender variations are related to how male signers use different forms of sign than female signers.
Age variations are related to how older signers sign differently than younger signers.
Another linguistic consideration of sign language that is similar to spoken language is the sentence type. In spoken languages, the speaker uses different intonation to distinguish between a question, a statement or a command. Similarly, in sign language, the signer uses different signs to indicate grammatical information that conveys the meaning of a statement, command, or any other type of sentence.
Without any doubt, sign language is a self-governing linguistic system that demonstrates all the characteristics and the complex structure of spoken languages. Anyone who is interested in learning the true grammar and syntax of sign language, there are quite some interesting degrees offered by esteemed universities such as Gallaudet University, Boston University and University of New Mexico.