The other day I was wondering, are there occurrences of pidgins or creoles in the world of Sign languages? So I made a quick search but there doesn't seem to be much.

For example, I found the Hawaii Pidgin Sign Language, but it's not an actual pidgin, it's simply named like this after the Hawaii Pidgin.

So, are there examples or they simply don't exist? If they do, which are the major ones? For major, I mean most used, most established, etc.

  • Really, you could say a lot of sign languages are creoles, if we take the term a bit loosely. For example, there is an african community (I forget which one) where there was a large percentage of deaf children. Some researchers were there and noticed that they had developed a crude, partial sign language. A 'generation' later, the language had been expanded into a full fledge language. This is basically the same way that creoles are formed.
    – Nathan
    Oct 1, 2011 at 12:08
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    @Nathan: Are you sure this isn't from Nicaragua where such a thing is documented to have happened and is widely known in linguistics. Oct 1, 2011 at 12:12
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    Bingo. I was hesitant to give it as answer because I wasn't familiar with all the details, but I was hoping that someone else would recognize what I was talking about. Thanks. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaraguan_Sign_Language
    – Nathan
    Oct 1, 2011 at 12:20
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    @Nathan: It's funny because this is the second time somebody has done exactly this since the site started (-: Oct 1, 2011 at 14:54

2 Answers 2


Spoken creoles are developed in environments where many languages are mixed (for example, in the Caribbean region, there were several major colonial languages and many African languages spoken by slaves). For deaf children learning sign languages, there is the opposite problem – they may have no input that is "linguistic," but only some non-linguistic gestures or non-native sign. There are two sign languages that have been "created" (i.e. arisen by some means other than descent from an extant language) in recent years and have been the subject of research by language-acquisition researchers: Nicaraguan Sign Language and al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. So I'd say that these are the closest thing to a sign language "creole" (although not much is known about the historical genesis of older sign languages, and it's quite possible that all of them arose spontaneously in deaf communities without influence from aural languages).

For the concept of "pidgin," there are so-called home sign systems, which develop when deaf children and hearing caregivers do not have access to instruction in an established sign language. These generally lack some of the traits than linguists ascribe to natural languages (as do pidgins).

If you're interested in the families of sign languages and the phylogenetic relationships between them, you might want to check out this section of Wikipedia, which lists the currently accepted groupings.

  • I think this is as far as it goes. Thanks for the answer. :)
    – Alenanno
    Oct 3, 2011 at 9:22

From North America, Plains Sign Language is what Wikipedia describes as "formerly a trade pidgin". This language replaced another one called Plateau Sign Language which is described as a "contact pidgin".

Plains SL was described by Chief Iron Hawk:

[The Great Spirit] gave us the power to talk with our hands and arms, and send information with the mirror, blanket and pony far away, and when we meet with Indians who have a different spoken language from ours, we can talk to them in signs."

In other words, they are pidgins that were mainly bridging the gap between spoken languages, not other sign languages.

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