Indo-Pakistani Sign Language

For the Native American sign language, see Plains Indian Sign Language.
Indo-Pakistani Sign Language
Native to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh
Native speakers
2.7 million in India (2003)[1]
number in Pakistan and Bangladesh unknown[2]
Possibly related to Nepalese Sign
  • Bangalore-Madras Sign Language
  • Bombay Sign Language
  • Calcutta Sign Language
  • Delhi Sign Language
  • North West Frontier Province Sign Language
  • Punjab-Sindh Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
ins  Indian Sign Language, Indo-Pakistani Sign Language
pks  Pakistani Sign Language
Glottolog indi1237  (Indian SL)[3]
paki1242  (Pakistan SL)[4]

Indo-Pakistani Sign Language (IPSL) is the predominant sign language in South Asia, used by at least several hundred thousand deaf signers (2003).[5][6] As with many sign languages, it is difficult to estimate numbers with any certainty, as the Census of India does not list sign languages and most studies have focused on the north and on urban areas.[7]

The Indian deaf population of 1.1 million is 98% illiterate. In line with oralist philosophy, deaf schools attempt early intervention with hearing aids etc., but these are largely dysfunctional in an impoverished society. As of 1986, only 2% of deaf children attended school.

Pakistan has a deaf population of 0.24 million, which is approximately 7.4% of the overall disabled population in the country.[8]

Status of sign language

Deaf schools in the region are overwhelmingly oralist in their approach.[9] Unlike American Sign Language (ASL) and sign languages of European countries, ISL is in rudimentary stage of its development. The Deaf communities of India are still struggling for ISL to gain the status of sign language as a minority language. Though sign language is used by many deaf people in India but it is not used officially in schools for teaching purposes.In 2005, India the National Curricular Framework (NCF) gave some degree of legitimacy to sign language education, by hinting that sign languages may qualify as an optional third language choice for hearing students. NCERT in March 2006 launched a class III text includes a chapter on sign language, emphasizing the fact that it is a language like any other and is “yet another mode of communication." The aim was to create healthy attitudes towards the differently abled.

Many efforts have been made by the Deaf communities, NGO’s, researchers and other organisations working for deaf people, including All India Federation of Deaf (AIFD), National association of the Deaf (NAD) in the direction of encouraging ISL.Until 2001, no formal classes for teaching ISL were conducted in India. During this period, Ali Yavar Jung National Institute of Hearing Handicapped (AYJNIHH), Mumbai, established ISL cell. It started a course “Diploma in Sign Language Interpreter Course”. The curriculum designed for the course aims to develop professional communicative competence in Sign language and ability to interpret professionally. It also focused on the basic understanding of Deaf community and Deaf culture. Later, the course was offered in the regional centres in Hyderabad, Bhuvaneshwar, Kolkata and Delhi. Besides AYJNIHH, organisations like Mook Badhir Sangathan in Indore and several other organisations are offering ISL classes. Many NGO’s all over the India use ISL to teach English and various academic and vocational courses. These include ISHARA, Mumbai; Deaf Way Foundation, Delhi; Noida Deaf Society; Leadership Education Empowerment of Deaf (LEED), Pune; Speaking Hands Institute for the Deaf, Punjab, etc. (Randhawa, 2014) . The associations like Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ALSI) and Indian Sign Language Interpreters Association (ISLIA) were established in 2006 and 2008 respectively for the professional development of Interpreters in India. The two schools have been established in India which is following bilingual approach to teach deaf students. One is Bajaj Institute of Learning (BIL) in Dehradun and the other is Mook Badhir Sangathan in Indore. Apart from the establishment of organisations working for Deaf people there has been a spurt in research on sign language in India. Recent additions are the research studies by research scholars of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and University of Delhi including Wallang, 2007 ; Sinha,2003,2008/2013 ; Hidam,2010 ; Kulsheshtra, 2013 . There is also work on problems and awareness of ISL and typology of ISL verbs (Morgan 2009,2010) . Apart from these there have been continued works by scholars on linguistic aspects of ISL as well as on varieties of ISL (Bhattacharya and Hidam 2010, Aboh, Pfau, and Zeshan 2005, Zeshan and Panda 2011, Panda 2011, Panda 2012). The earnest step taken by the Government of India to promote sign language was establishment of the ISLRTC. However, currently the autonomy of the Research centre is a contentious issue, yet to be resolved.


There are many varieties of sign language in the region, including many pockets of home sign and local sign languages, such as Ghandruk Sign Language, Jhankot Sign Language, and Jumla Sign Language in Nepal, and Alipur Sign Language in India, which appear to be language isolates. There are also various Sri Lankan sign languages which may not even be related to each other. However, the urban varieties of India, Pakistan, Nepal (Nepalese Sign Language), and Bangladesh are clearly related (although, for Nepalese Sign Language at least, it is not clear whether the relation is genetic, or perhaps rather one of borrowing compounded by extensive incorporation of a shared South Asian gestural base). There is disagreement whether these related varieties should be considered separate languages.

While the sign system in ISL appears to be largely indigenous, elements in ISL are derived from British Sign Language. For example, most ISL signers nowadays use fingerspelling based on British Sign Language fingerspelling, with only isolated groups using an indigenous devanagari-based fingerspelling system (for example, Deaf students and graduates of the school for the deaf in Vadodara/Baroda, Gujarat). In addition, more recently contact with foreign Deaf has resulted in rather extensive borrowing from International Signs and (either directly or via International Signs) from American Sign Language. A small number of the Deaf in and around Bengaluru are often said to use American Sign Language (owing to a longstanding ASL deaf school there); however it is probably more correct to say that they use a lexicon based largely on ASL (or Signed English), while incorporating also a not inconsequential ISL element. Furthermore, regardless of the individual signs used, the grammar used is clearly ISL and not ASL.

The Delhi Association for the Deaf is reportedly working with Jawaharlal Nehru University to identify a standard sign language for India.[13]


Early history

Although discussion of sign languages and the lives of deaf people is extremely rare in the history of South Asian literature, there are a few references to deaf people and gestural communication in texts dating from antiquity.[14] Symbolic hand gestures known as mudras have been employed in religious contexts in Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism for many centuries, although these religious traditions have often excluded deaf people from participation in ritual or religious membership.[15] In addition, classical Indian dance and theatre often employs stylised hand gestures with particular meanings.[16]

An early reference to gestures used by deaf people for communication appears in a 12th-century Islamic legal commentary, the Hidayah. In the influential text, deaf (or "dumb") people have legal standing in areas such as bequests, marriage, divorce and financial transactions, if they communicate habitually with intelligible signs.[17]

Early in the 20th century, a high incidence of deafness was observed among communities of the Naga hills. As has happened elsewhere in such circumstances (see, for example, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language), a village sign language had emerged and was used by both deaf and hearing members of the community. Ethnologist and political officer John Henry Hutton wrote:

As one might expect ... of men without the art of writing, the language of signs has reached a high state of development... To judge how highly developed is this power of communicating by signs, etc., it is necessary only to experience a Naga interpreter's translation of a story or a request told to him in sign language by a dumb man. ... Indeed the writer has known a dumb man make a long and detailed complaint of an assault in which nothing was missing except proper names, and even these were eventually identified by means of the dumb man's description of his assailants' dress and personal appearance.[18]

(See Naga Sign Language.) However, it is unlikely that any of these sign systems are related to modern IPSL, and deaf people were largely treated as social outcasts throughout South Asian history.

Historical Development of ISL

There is no published material that discerns the history of Sign language in India. Vasishta, Woodward and Wilson (1978) estimated ‘that Indian Sign language is used by over 1,000,000 deaf adults and by approximately 500,000 deaf children, less than 5 % of whom attend special schools for deaf.’ The prevalence of Deaf communities and schools for Deaf gave birth to sign language in India. Formal education of the deaf in India was started in 1880’s. Most of the schools in India followed the oral approach for teaching deaf students and it is still prevalent today. According to Banerji (1903), sign language was strongly discouraged in most of the schools, however, students used to communicate with each other via sign language. Therefore, the schools had given the space for the development of flourishing sign languages in India. The concrete information about the invention of Indian Sign Language is not available. In the early twentieth century, sign languages in India attracted the attention of educators and researchers. The chronological order of the researches and efforts made in the development of Indian Sign language are as follows: -Bannerjee(1928) compared the sign languages used in three schools of Bengal. The schools selected for the research were located in Dacca, Barisal and Calcutta. There was significant difference in signs used in the three schools.

-Vashishta, Woodward and Wilson (1978), conducted a survey in the four major cities in India including Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Bangalore. The findings of the survey showed that Indian Sign Language is one language with regional variations. They concluded in their study that the varieties of sign language in India were not similar to European Sign languages.

-Woodward (1992) studied the sign language varieties in Karachi, Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, and Bangalore and found that the sign language varieties of India and Pakistan are related. The research further examined the relationship of sign language varieties used in India and Pakistan to those in Nepal. Results of the comparisons indicated that sign language variet- ies in India, Pakistan, and Nepal are distinct but closely related language varieties that belong to the same language family.

-In 1981, the first dictionary of ISL focussing on Delhi was published.

-Zeshan (1996) studied the linguistic aspects of sign language varieties of India and Pakistan. The study revealed that the grammar and vocabulary of sign language varieties of both the countries were similar irrespective of geographical boundaries. Therefore, the term “Indo-Pak Sign Language” was given to the sign language variety used by the Deaf people in both the countries.

-In 2001, Miles compiled the details of historical development of sign languages in South Asia region.

-Until 2001, no formal classes for teaching ISL were conducted in India. During this period, Ali Yavar Jung National Institute of Hearing Handicapped (AYJNIHH), Mumbai, established ISL cell. It started a course “Diploma in Sign Language Interpreter Course”. The curriculum designed for the course aims to develop professional communicative competence in Sign language and ability to interpret professionally. It also focused on the basic understanding of Deaf community and Deaf culture. Later, the course was offered in the regional centres in Hyderabad, Bhuvaneshwar, Kolkata and Delhi.

-The Ramakrisha mission Vidyalaya in collaboration with Christian Blind Mission (CBM) International released first “Indian Sign Language” dictionary in the year 2001. The dictionary documented over 2500 signs from 42 cities in 12 States all over India.

-In 2009, IGNOU in collaboration with University of Central Lancshire (UCLAN) started B.A. in Applied Sign Language Studies for the Deaf students. The course was first of its kind in India for Deaf students. For the first time the Deaf students in India were able to access University education through the medium of sign language.

-Later in 2011, IGNOU under the aegis of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE), Government of India established country’s first Indian Sign Language Research & Training Centre (ISLRTC). The Research centre started with the broad objective of carrying out research in ISL, to promote research on bilingual approach in education of deaf children and training of interpreters.

Residential deaf schools

Documented deaf education began with welfare services, mission schools and orphanages from the 1830s, and "initially worked with locally-devised gestural or signed communication, sometimes with simultaneous speech."[19] Later in the 19th century, residential deaf schools were established, and they tended (increasingly) to adopt an oralist approach over the use of sign language in the classroom. These schools included The Bombay Institution for Deaf-Mutes, which was founded by Bishop Leo Meurin in the 1880s,[20] and schools in Madras[21] and Calcutta[22] which opened in the 1890s. Other residential schools soon followed, such as the "School for Deaf and Dumb Boys" at Mysore, founded in 1902,[23] a school in Dehiwala in what is now Sri Lanka, founded in 1913,[24] and "The Ida Rieu School for blind, deaf, dumb and other defective children", founded in 1923 in Karachi, in what is now Pakistan.[25]

While a few students who were unable to learn via the oralist method were taught with signs, many students preferred to communicate with each other via sign language, sometimes to the frustration of their teachers. The first study of the sign language of these children, which is almost certainly related to modern IPSL, was in 1928 by British teacher H. C. Banerjee. She visited three residential schools for deaf children, at Dacca, Barisal and Calcutta, observing that "in all these schools the teachers have discouraged the growth of the sign language, which in spite of this official disapproval, has grown and flourished."[26] She compared sign vocabularies at the different schools and described the signs in words in an appendix.

A rare case of a public event conducted in sign language was reported by a mission in Palayamkottai in 1906: "Our services for the Deaf are chiefly in the sign language, in which all can join alike, whether learning Tamil, as those do who belong to the Madras Presidency, or English, which is taught to those coming from other parts."[27]


Indian Sign Language has its own grammar. It is not dependent on the spoken English or Hindi language. Many people believe that the sign language is the manual representation of spoken English or Hindi language. But it is not true. Neither ISL depends upon spoken English or Hindi language nor on other sign languages. Zeshan (2014) discusses three aspects of ISL which includes ISL Lexicon, ISL syntax and spatial grammar. The unique and distinct features of ISL that makes it different from other sign languages are:

1) Number Signs: The numbers from zero to nine are formed in ISL by holding up a hand with the appropriate handshape for each number. From one to five the corresponding number of extended fingers forms the numeral sign, whereas for zero and the numbers from six to nine special handshapes are used that derive from written numbers. Ten may either be expressed by two 5-hands or by ‘1+0’. (Zeshan, 2000)

2) Family Relationship: The signs for family relationship are preceded by the sign for ‘male/man’ and ‘female/woman’.



3) Sign families: Several signs belong to same family if they share one or more parameters including handshapes, place of articulation and movement.


   i)PASS and FAIL – The handshape for the sign is same but they move in opposite direction.
   ii)MONEY, PAY and RICH – They have same handshape but different place of articulation and movement pattern.
   iii)THINK, KNOW and UNDERSTAND - The place of articulation is head which is same for all signs.

4) The ISL consists of various non-manual gestures including mouth pattern, mouth gesture, facial expression, body posture, head position and eye gaze (Zeshan, 2001)

5) There is no temporal inflection in ISL. The past, present and future is depicted by using signs for before, then, and after.

6) The question words like WHAT, WHERE, WHICH, HOW etc. are placed at the end of interrogative sentences.

 i) English: Where is the bank?
ii) English: Who is sick?
    ISL    : SICK WHO

7) The use of space is a crucial feature of ISL.

Sentences are always predicate final, and all of the signs from the open lexical classes can function as predicates. Ellipsis is extensive, and one-word sentences are common. There is a strong preference for sentences with only one lexical argument. Constituent order does not play any role in the marking of grammatical relations. These are coded exclusively by spatial mechanisms (e.g., directional signs) or inferred from the context. Temporal expressions usually come first in the sentence, and if there is a functional particle, it always follows the predicate (e.g., YESTERDAY FATHER DIE COMPLETIVE — "(My) father died yesterday").[28]

Indian Sign language has appeared in numerous Indian films such as:


  1. Indian Sign Language, Indo-Pakistani Sign Language at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    Pakistani Sign Language at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. The estimate of 5.9 million from Ethnologue 18's reference, IMB, is the number of deaf people.
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Indian Sign Language". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Pakistan Sign Language". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  5. Vasishta, M., J. C. Woodward, and K. L. Wilson (1978). "Sign Language in India: Regional Variation within the Deaf Population". Indian Journal of Applied Linguistics. 4 (2): 66–74.
  6. Ethnologue gives the signing population in India as 2,680,000 in 2003.
    Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.) (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International.
  7. 1 2 Ulrike Zeshan (2000). Sign Language of Indo-Pakistan: A description of a Signed Language. Philadelphia, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.
  8. Pakistan Sign Language – A Synopsis
  9. Dilip Deshmukh (1996). Sign Language and Bilingualism in Deaf Education,. Ichalkaranji,.
  10. Woodward, J (1993). "The relationship of sign language varieties in India, Pakistan and Nepal". Sign Language Studies (78): 15–22.
  11. "Indian Sign Language", Ethnologue (19 ed.), SIL International, 2016, retrieved 2016-10-23
  12. Johnson, Russell J.; Johnson, Jane E. (2016). "Distinction between West Bengal Sign Language, and Indian Sign Language Based on Statistical Assessment". Sign Language Studies. 16 (4).
  13. "Standard sign language for the deaf in India soon". New Delhi,: Hindustan Times. Press Trust of India. 2004-09-16. Archived from the original on 2012-02-16.
  14. M. Miles (2001). "Sign, Gesture & Deafness in South Asian & South-West Asian Histories: a bibliography with annotation and excerpts from India; also from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma / Myanmar, Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, Persia / Iran, & Sri Lanka.". Retrieved 2007-05-06.
  15. Scholar of Oriental studies H. W. Bailey identifies passages in the Avesta (Yast 5.93) and the Vinaya, e.g. "Excluded from the Buddhist Theravāda community (sangha-) were the andha-, mUga-, and badhira-, 'the blind, dumb, and deaf'." (Footnote: Pali Vinaya I, 91, 15)
    Bailey, H.W. (1961). "Arya III". Bull. School of Oriental & African Studies (24): 470–483.
  16. Shukla, Hira Lal (1994). Semiotica Indica. Encyclopaedic dictionary of body-language in Indian art and culture. 2 vols. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.
  17. Vol. IV, Book LIII. Al-Marghinani (1870, reprint 1975, 4 vols in one). The Hedaya or Guide. A commentary on the Mussulman laws. 2nd edn. transl. Charles Hamilton, ed. Standish Grady. Lahore: Premier Book. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  18. Hutton, John Henry (1921). The Angami Nagas, with some notes on neighbouring tribes. London: MacMillan. pp. 291–292.
  19. Miles, M. 2001, extended and updated 2006-04. "Signs of Development in Deaf South & South-West Asia: histories, cultural identities, resistance to cultural imperialism". This is a further revised, extended and updated version of a chapter first published in: Alison Callaway (ed) Deafness and Development, University of Bristol, Centre for Deaf Studies, 2001. Internet publication URL:
  20. Hull, Ernest R. (1913) Bombay Mission-History with a special study of the Padroado Question. Volume II 1858-1890. Bombay: Examiner Press
  21. Report on Public Instruction in the Madras Presidency for 1892-93. Madras, 1893. (Report by D. Duncan).
  22. Editorial (1895), "The deaf mutes in India". The Indian Magazine and Review, August 1895, pp. 436-38. (Quoting largely an article by Ernest J.D. Abraham, in The British Deaf-Mute, May 1895).
  23. Iyer, A. Padmanabha (1938). "Modern Mysore, impression of a visitor". Trivandrum: Sridhara Printing House. pp 78-83
  24. Smith, M. Saumarez (1915) "C.E.Z.M.S. Work among the Deaf in India & Ceylon". London: Church of England Zenana Mission Society. p. 13
  25. Report on Public Instruction in the Bombay Presidency for the Year 1923-24. Bombay: Central Govt Press. 1925. (Report by M. Hesketh). p. 91
  26. Banerjee, H.C. (1928) The sign language of deaf-mutes. Indian Journal of Psychology 3: 69-87. (quote from p.70)
  27. Swainson, Florence (1906). "Report of the Deaf and Dumb and Industrial School in connection with the Church of England Zenana Mission, Palamcottah, South India, for 1905". Palamcottah: Church Mission Press. p.9
  28. Zeshan, U. (2003). "Indo-Pakistani Sign Language Grammar: A Typological Outline." Sign Language Studies 3:2, 157-212.

Further reading

Ichalkaranj, India: Deaf Foundation.

Sinha, Samar (2005), A Skeletal Grammar of Indian Sign Language, MPhil dissertation. JNU, New Delhi. Sinha, Samar (2008), A Grammar of Indian Sign Language, PhD thesis, JNU, New Delhi

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