Skip to main content Accessibility help

Vive la différence: Sign language and spoken language in language evolution

  • Wendy Sandler (a1)


Michael Arbib's book proposes a scenario of language evolution that begins with pantomime, progresses to proto-sign, and then develops together with proto-speech in an “expanding spiral” to create a language-ready brain. The richness of detail in Arbib's hypothesis makes serious appraisal of each of its aspects possible. Here I describe findings about established and emerging sign languages that bear specifically upon the interaction between sign and speech proposed in the Mirror System Hypothesis. While supporting the central role that Arbib attributes to gestural/visual communication in understanding language and its evolution, I point out some kinks in the spiral that potentially disrupt its smooth expansion. One is the fact that each modality relies on an entirely different motor system. Another is the type of relation that holds between the articulators and grammatical structure, which is radically different in each system as well. A third kink disrupts the proposed continuity between holistic pantomime (gestural holophrases) and signs. Given such differences, instead of a scenario in which speech grew out of sign, it seems more likely that the two modalities complemented each other symbiotically throughout evolution as they do today. If so, then the modern ability to spontaneously create sign languages reveals the extraordinary richness and plasticity of human cognition, and not an evolutionary stepping stone to speech.



Hide All
Arbib, M. 2012. How the brain got language: The mirror system hypothesis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Boer, B. de, Sandler, W. & Kirby, S.. 2012. New perspectives on duality of patterning: Introduction to the special issue. Language and Cognition 4(4). 251259.
Brentari, D. 1998. A prosodic model of sign language phonology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Browman, C. & Goldstein, L.. 1992. Articulatory phonology: An overview. Phonetica 49(3&4). 155180.
Call, J. & Tomasello, M.. 2007. The gestural communication of apes and monkeys. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
Davis, B. L., MacNeilage, P. F. & Matyear, C. L.. 2002. Acquisition of serial complexity in speech production: A comparison of phonetic and phonological approaches to first word production. Phonetica 59. 75107.
Deacon, T. 1997. The symbolic species: The coevolution of language and the brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Donald, M. 1991. Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Dudis, P. 2008. Types of depiction in ASL. In de Quadros, R. Müller (ed.), Sign language: Spinning and unraveling the past, present and future, 159190. Florianópolis, SC, Brazil: Editora Arara Azul.
Fitch, T. 2010. The evolution of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goldstein, L., Byrd, D. & Saltzman, E.. 2006. The role of vocal tract gestural action units in understanding the evolution of phonology. In Arbib, M. (ed.), Action to language via the mirror neuron system, 159190. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hockett, C. F. 1960. The origins of speech. Scientific American 203. 8996.
Israel, A. & Sandler, W.. 2011. Phonological category resolution in a new sign language: A comparative study of handshapes. In Channon, R. & van der Hulst, H. (eds.), Formational units in sign languages, 177202. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Lillo-Martin, D. & Klima, E.. 1990. Pointing out the differences: ASL pronouns in syntactic theory. In Fischer, S. D. & Siple, P. (eds.), Theoretical issues in sign language research, 191210. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.
MacNeilage, P. F. 1998. The origin of speech. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McNeill, D. 1992. Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Meier, R. P., Cormier, K. & Quinto-Pozos, D. (eds.). 2002. Modality and structure in signed and spoken languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Meir, I. 2010. Iconicity and metaphor: Constraints on metaphorical extension of iconic forms. Language 86(4). 865896.
Meir, I., Padden, C., Aronoff, M. & Sandler, W.. 2007. Body as subject. Journal of Linguistics 43(3). 531563.
Meir, I., Padden, C., Aronoff, M. & Sandler, W.. 2013. Competing iconicities. Cognitive Linguistics 24(2). 309343.
Meir, I. & Sandler, W.. 2008. A language in space. The story of Israeli Sign Language. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Padden, C. & Humphries, T.. 2005. Inside deaf culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Perniss, P., Thompson, R. L. & Vigliocco, G.. 2010. Iconicity as a general property of language: Evidence from spoken and signed languages. Frontiers in Psychology 1. 227.
Pinker, S. & Jackendoff, R.. 2005. The faculty of language: What's special about it? Cognition 95. 201236.
Sandler, W. 1989. Phonological representation of the sign: Linearity and nonlinearity in American Sign Language. Dordrecht: Foris.
Sandler, W. 1993. Sign language and modularity. Lingua 89(4). 315351.
Sandler, W. 2009. Symbiotic symbolization by hand and mouth in sign language. Semiotica 174(1/4). 241275.
Sandler, W. 2013. Designated gestures and the emergence of sign language. Gesture 12(3). 265307.
Sandler, W. & Lillo-Martin, D.. 2006. Sign language and linguistic universals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sandler, W., Meir, I., Dachkovsky, S., Padden, C. & Aronoff, M.. 2011. The emergence of complexity in prosody and syntax. Lingua 121(13). 20142033.
Sandler, W., Meir, I., Padden, C. & Aronoff, M.. 2005. The emergence of grammar: Systematic structure in a new language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102(7). 26612665.
Sandler, W., Meir, I., Padden, C. & Aronoff, M.. To appear. Language emergence: Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. In Enfield, N., Kockelman, P. & Sidnell, J. (eds.), Cambridge handbook of linguistic anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stokoe, W. 1960. Sign language structure: An outline of the visual communication systems of the American deaf. Buffalo, NY: University of Buffalo.
Tocheri, M. W., Orr, C. M., Jacofsky, M. C. & Marzke, M. W.. 2008. The evolutionary history of the homominin hand since the last common ancestor of Pan and Homo. Journal of Anatomy 212(4). 544562.
Taub, S. F. 2001. Language from the body: Iconicity and metaphor in American Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wray, A. 1998. Protolanguage as a holistic system for social interaction. Language and Communication 18. 4767.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Vive la différence: Sign language and spoken language in language evolution

  • Wendy Sandler (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.