I frequently travel to Nicaragua and interact with a group of children who are learning ISN (Nicaraguan Sign Language) at their school. I have no experience with ASL (other than a friend teaching me a handful of signs), but it seems that ISN shares at least some things in common with ASL (primarily the alphabet, as well as some other signs). My understanding was that ISN developed fairly independently of outside influence.

What elements are shared between the two languages (lexically, grammatically, etc.)? Was there early influence of ASL on ISN or are these recent borrowings?

  • This is a great question, but you should be aware that finger spelling is no more a natural part of any sign language than alphabets and writing systems are for spoken languages. Languages evolve naturally and much later writing systems are invented, borrowed, or adapted. Speech is as old as humanity but writing is only a few thousand years old. ISN evolved naturally and then the finger spelling of ASL was artificially added to it more recently. Apart from fingerspelling, any other influences from ASL would be very interesting to learn about. Dec 9, 2012 at 23:22
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    @hippietrail: I have noticed similar signs apart from fingerspelling (simple things like hello, thank you, and name). There could be more, but I wouldn't notice since my vocabulary in both languages is about 10 signs :)
    – jrdioko
    Dec 16, 2012 at 23:34
  • Another thing is that the first words / signs a second-language learner would learn are likely in a different subset to what a first language language learner, typically a baby / toddler, would learn - and may be different again to the subset of words and signs invented first when a new language is born. "Hello" and "thank you" seem the most basic to us but might well have been so novel to a spontaneously created recent new language that they weren't concepts that thought up at all before coming into contact with ASL. Dec 17, 2012 at 2:18

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The answers you seek are in "Talking Hands" by Margalit Fox (avail only in paper last I checked). For primarily cultural reasons, sign was ignored by academia until very recently, and this book happens to compile a lot of the recent work. By the quip the book is about the author's trip to the middle east to observe linguists studying a newly formed sign language. To fill in the gaps of the book and to explain what she was seeing, the book talks a lot about the similarities among the sign languages of the world. Some of the similarities are due to genetic relationships (ASL is descendant, roughly from French SL). Nicaraguan ASL and the middle eastern one the book studies are nearly a priori or at least as close to that as you can get in the real world.

Some things that appear in many sign languages (even unrelated) are verbs that show spatial agreement, like when in ASL you sign , I-give-you, it is a single sign moved from me towards you. The same pattern pops up in unrelated sign languages, hinting at the possibility of SL universals. But like I said earlier, the research on global sign language is pretty new and suffers the same sort of problems that endangered languages suffer, few speakers (compared to English and French) and few researchers.

Here is a tangentially related question

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