There are several processes of change that affect spoken languages, including phonological and phonetic change, semantic change and lexical replacement. Each of these categories, in turn, comprise a large set of complex phenomena, such as all the types of phonological change (epenthesis, elision, metathesis and so on). In any case, all spoken languages undergo the same processes, although at different rates, with different results etc.

Is this also true for signed languages? That is, are signed languages affected by the same processes – albeit "translated", so to speak, to the domain of signs and facial expressions – that affect spoken languages?

2 Answers 2


Since sign languages form spontaneously when deaf children are given access to each other, linguists have had the chance to watch the languages evolve. What is notable is how fast they evolve when they are new, the classic example being the evolution from a intransitive only to a transitive + intransitive language.

" As pointed out by a reviewer, a transition from intransitive to transitive structures is also clearly observed in the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), which developed spontaneously by deaf children in the 1970s and 1980s (see, e.g., Kegl et al. 1999). According to the authors, the early pidgin stages of NSL do not use transitive [NP V NP] constructions, such as (11) (Kegl et al. 1999: 216–217)"



Every one of those changes has been observed in signed languages.

Valli, Clayton and Ceil Lucas. 1995. Linguistics of American Sign Language: an introduction. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press.

metathesis is on P. 43 "In ASL, several signs which have a pre-specified initial and final location can have the order of these two locations reversed in contexts which seem to be purely phonological. For example the sign DEAF, prototypically made with the '1' handshape making contact first with the cheek and then moving to contact the jaw (as in the sentence FATHER DEAF) can have these locations reversed if the preceding sign, when part of the same constituent, has a final location more proximal to the jaw (as in the sentence MOTHER DEAF). Both forms of the sign DEAF are acceptable to native signers."

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