Signed languages are not codes – see letter to editor of Washington Post by professor emeritus Ceil Lucas

Nyle DiMarco, a Deaf native user of ASL and popular contestant on America’s Next Top Model, has been making waves in the media lately. One such example is the August 7th article by Yanan Wang, “His modeling photos got him noticed, but didn’t show one thing: He’s deaf” which shared DiMarco’s observations that the Deaf community is a linguistic minority but inaccurately described signed languages as codes.

Ceil Lucas, Professor Emeritus of the Linguistics Department at Gallaudet University, wrote a letter to the editor.

Sign language is not a code; it is a natural language like spoken languages, with all of the characteristics of natural languages. And in this case, we’re talking about American Sign Language (ASL), independent in structure from spoken languages and also distinct from the tens of other sign languages used in deaf communities on the planet, such as British Sign Language (BSL), Auslan ( Australian Sign Language ) and Italian Sign Language (LIS), to name but a few.

Nyle DiMarco, the subject of the article, is a native user of ASL, as are many children around the world, both hearing and deaf, born to deaf parents and into signing families. If ASL and other sign languages are “codes,” then all spoken languages are also “codes,” which is clearly not the case.

We in sign language studies are passionate about this issue because of all of the time and effort we have expended in demonstrating that sign languages are “real” languages and not, in fact, codes of some kind.

The letter can be found here along with Keith Cagle’s letter objecting to the pejorative use of “deaf”. Cagle is an associate professor for Gallaudet University Department of Interpretation.

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