Plains Indian Sign Language

Plains Indian Sign Language
Plains Sign Talk, Hand Talk, First Nation Sign Language[1]
Native to Canada, Mexico, USA
Region Central Canada and United States including the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains region; northern Mexico
Ethnicity Various North American Indigenous Peoples
Native speakers
Unknown (no date)[2]
75 users total (no date)[3]
Isolate, formerly a trade pidgin
  • Navajo Sign Language
  • Blackfoot Sign Language
  • Cree Sign Language
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Recognised as official in courts, education and legislative assembly of Ontario.[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 psd
Glottolog plai1235[4]

  The attested historical range of Plains Sign Talk among other sign languages in the US and Canada (excl. ASL and LSQ).
Extracts of the films taken during the 1930 Conference on PISL conservation, showing signers from various tribes.

Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), also known as Plains Sign Talk,[5] Plains Sign Language and First Nation Sign Language,[1] is a trade language (or international auxiliary language), formerly trade pidgin, that was once the lingua franca across central Canada, central and western United States and northern Mexico, used among the various Plains Nations. It was also used for story-telling, oratory, various ceremonies, and by deaf people for ordinary daily use.[6] It is falsely believed to be a manually coded language or languages, however there is not substantive evidence establishing a connection between any spoken language and Plains Sign Talk.

The name 'Plains Sign Talk' is preferred in Canada, with 'Indian' being considered pejorative by many. Hence, publications and reports on the language vary in naming conventions according to origin.


Plains Sign Talk's antecedents, if any, are unknown, due to lack of written records. But, the earliest records of contact between Europeans and Indigenous peoples of the Gulf Coast region in what is now Texas and northern Mexico note a fully formed sign language already in use by the time of the Europeans' arrival there.[7] These records include the accounts of Cabeza de Vaca in 1527 and Coronado in 1541.

As a result of several factors, including the massive depopulation and the Americanization of Indigenous North Americans, the number of Plains Sign Talk speakers declined from European arrival onward. In 1885, it was estimated that there were over 110,000 "sign-talking Indians", including Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Sioux, Kiowa and Arapaho.[8] By the 1960s, there remained a "very small percentage of this number".[8] There are few Plains Sign Talk speakers today in the 21st century.[9]

William Philo Clark, who served in the United States Army on the northern plains during the Indian Wars, was the author of The Indian Sign Language, first published in 1885. The Indian Sign Language with Brief Explanatory Notes of the Gestures Taught Deaf-Mutes in Our Institutions and a Description of Some of the Peculiar Laws, Customs, Myths, Superstitions, Ways of Living, Codes of Peace and War Signs is a comprehensive lexicon of signs, with accompanying insights into indigenous cultures and histories. It remains in print.


Sign language use has been documented across speakers of at least 37 spoken languages in twelve families,[10] spread across an area of over 2.6 million square kilometres (1 million square miles).[6][11] In recent history, it was highly developed among the Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Kiowa, among others, and remains strong among the Crow, Cheyenne and Arapaho.

Signing may have started in the south, perhaps in northern Mexico or Texas, and only spread into the plains in recent times, though this suspicion may be an artifact of European observation. Plains Sign Talk spread to the Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Caddo after their removal to Oklahoma. Via the Crow, it replaced the divergent Plateau Sign Language among the eastern nations that used it, the Coeur d'Alene, Sanpoil, Okanagan, Thompson, Lakes, Shuswap, and Coleville in British Columbia, with western nations shifting instead to Chinook Jargon.

The various nations with attested use, divided by language family, are:

A distinct form is also reported from the Wyandot of Ohio.

Navajo Sign Language
Native to USA
Ethnicity Navajo
Native speakers
unknown (1992)[12]
(deaf and hearing members)
Plains Sign Talk
  • Navajo Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None (mis)
Glottolog None
Blackfoot Sign Language
Native to Canada, USA
Ethnicity Blackfoot
Native speakers
unknown (2015)[13]
(deaf and hearing members)
Plains Sign Talk
  • Blackfoot Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None (mis)
Glottolog None
Cree Sign Language
Native to Canada, USA
Ethnicity Cree
Native speakers
unknown (2015)
(deaf and hearing members)
Plains Sign Talk
  • Cree Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None (mis)
Glottolog None

It is known that Navajo has a comparably sizeable population of individuals who can speak the Navajo dialect of Plains Sign Talk. There is also an unrelated sign language in a clan of Navajos that has several deaf members. [12][14]

There exists a variety of Plains Sign Talk within the Blackfoot Confederacy. Little is known about the language beyond that it is used by Deaf community members, as well as by the community at large, to pass on "oral" traditions and stories.[13]


There are four basic parameters of Plains Sign Talk: the location of the hand, its movement, shape, and orientation:[15]

There may be other parameters, such as facial features. However, these function like suprasegmentals, and the four parameters listed above are the crucial ones.[16]

Although the parameters of sign are listed separately below, in actuality they co-occur with the other parameters to make a single sign.[16] It is not clear how many of the differences were distinctive (phonemic).


The Bureau of American Ethnology published a glossary of Plains Sign Talk words that illustrate the handshapes involved.[19] They assigned them alphabetic letters.


Plains Sign Talk uses the following locations. The various neutral spaces are the most common places for signs to occur.[17]

  • Left side of torso
  • Right side of torso
  • Neutral space (centered in front of torso)
  • Upper neutral space
  • Lower neutral space
  • Left neutral space
  • Right neutral space
  • Mouth
  • Nose
  • Chin front
  • Below chin
  • Cheek
  • Eye
  • Below nose (above mouth)
  • Forehead
  • Head top (attached to top of head)
  • Head side (attached to head above ear)
  • Head back (attached to back of head)
  • Side of head right (space to the right side of head)
  • Side of head left (space to the left side of head)
  • Side of head front right (space in front of head on the right)
  • Side of head front left (space in front of head on the left)
  • Above head
  • Ear (attached to head at ear)
  • Beside ear (space beside ear)
  • Wrist
  • Palm front
  • Palm back
  • Left side of hand
  • Right side of hand
  • Below hand
  • Above hand
  • Fingers
  • Before face (space in front of face)
  • Chest
  • Chest right
  • Chest left
  • Elbow
  • Forearm
  • Shoulder
  • Feet


These are the directions towards which the palm can face.[17]


The movements below are found in Plains Sign Talk. They may be repeated in certain situations.[17]

  • Stationary (no movement)
  • Downward
  • Upward
  • Forward
  • Backward
  • Toward dominant side
  • toward non-dominant side
  • Upward arch
  • Downward arch
  • Backward arch
  • Forward arch
  • Toward dominant side arch
  • Toward non-dominant side arch
  • Diagonal up and right
  • Diagonal up and left
  • Diagonal down and right
  • Diagonal down and left
  • Rotating
  • Vertical circle
  • Horizontal circle

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Province of Ontario (2007). "Bill 213: An Act to recognize sign language as an official language in Ontario".
  2. Plains Indian Sign Language at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  3. Plains Indian Sign Language at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
  4. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Plains Indian Sign Language". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  5. Darin Flynn. "Canadian Languages". University of Calgary. Retrieved 8 August 2015.
  6. 1 2 McKay-Cody, Melanie Raylene (1998), "Plains Indian Sign Language: A comparative study of alternative and primary signers", in Carroll, Cathryn, Deaf Studies V: Toward 2000--Unity and Diversity, Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press, ISBN 1893891097
  7. Wurtzburg, Susan, and Campbell, Lyle. "North American Indian Sign Language: Evidence for its Existence before European Contact," International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Apr., 1995), pp. 153-167.
  8. 1 2 Tomkins, William. Indian sign language. [Republication of "Universal Indian Sign Language of the Plains Indians of North America" 5th ed. 1931]. New York : Dover Publications 1969. (p. 7)
  9. Ethnologue report for Plain Indian Sign Language
  10. Davis, Jeffrey. 2006. "A historical linguistic account of sign language among North American Indian groups." In Multilingualism and Sign Languages: From the Great Plains to Australia; Sociolinguistics of the Deaf community, C. Lucas (ed.), Vol. 12, pp. 3–35. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press
  11. 1 2 3 Davis, Jeffrey E. (2010), Hand talk: Sign language among American Indian nations, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-69030-0
  12. 1 2 Supalla, Samuel J. (1992). The Book of Name Signs. p. 22.
  13. 1 2 "Language". Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. Retrieved 5 October 2015.
  14. Davis, Jeffrey; Supalla, Samuel (1995). "A Sociolinguistic Description of Sign Language Use in a Navajo Family". In Ceil, Lucas. Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities. Gallaudet University Press. pp. 77–106. ISBN 978-1-563-68036-6.
  15. Bergmann et al,2007, pp. 79-86
  16. 1 2 3 4 5 Bergmann et al,2007
  17. 1 2 3 4 Cody, 1970
  18. 1 2 Tomkins,1969
  19. Bureau of American ethnology,1881

Further reading

External links

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/22/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.