I have been reading Velupillai's An Introduction to Linguistic Typology, and the author stresses how much work still needs to be done for sign languages in general. She mentions in particular that there are almost no reference grammars available for any sign language at all, so that typological studies become rather difficult.

I'm now trying to find a reference grammar on any sign language, and I can only come up with one: New Zealand Sign Language: A Reference Grammar, by Rachel McKee. It's only available as an ebook, and I'm not sure if it is actually a comprehensive reference grammar or a shorter grammar for reference by learners.

Can anyone refer me to a comprehensive reference grammar on any sign language? If I am mistaken and there are now plenty, a list of some good examples would be especially useful.

2 Answers 2


I don't think there are many signed or spoken languages with a truly comprehensive reference grammar.

The best descriptive grammar that I know of for Auslan is this publication by Adam Schembri The structure and formation of signs in Auslan. More technical works on Auslan by the same author are here. A more general introduction to Auslan is this work by Trevor Johnston. Of course, NZ Sign Language and Auslan are very closely related (both being grouped with British Sign Language as the BANZSL family of sign languages).

There is also a description of Yolngu Sign Language, described by the authors as a sketch grammar.


For British Sign Language I know of the following books:

  1. "The Linguistics of British Sign Language: An Introduction" by Rachel Sutton-Spence and Benzi Woll.

  2. The grammar section in the introduction to "Dictionary of British Sign Language/English" published by the British Deaf Association.

Neither of these will help you very much if you haven't already studied BSL for at least a year, preferably two or three years.

Number 1 above has too few pictures of signs, so it will identify signs by their English translation, but many words in spoken English have several possible translations into BSL, some being regionalisms, others just plain synonyms, so when the authors say "the sign for "PEOPLE"", you really don't know which of the various signs they are talking about.

Number 2 above has photographs for nearly all the signs it refers to, so the reader can see the signs being talked about. However, it is a thick, heavy book and is a serious attempt to be very thorough with its description of BSL, although it is the first such attempt ever undertaken in BSL and is necessarily not complete. It is primarily a dictionary rather than a book of grammar, but the introduction is helpful on the grammar.

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