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Plains Indian Sign Language

Plains Indian Sign Language
Native to USA and Canada
Native speakers
(not a native language) 
Language codes
ISO 639-3 psd
Glottolog plai1235[1]

The Plains Indian sign languages (PISL) are various manually coded languages used, or formerly used, by various Native Americans of the Great Plains of the United States of America and Canada. The best known is Plains Standard Sign Language, a contact language (international auxiliary language) used between these peoples.


  • History 1
  • Geography 2
  • Phonology 3
    • Handshape 3.1
    • Location 3.2
    • Orientation 3.3
    • Movement 3.4
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


PISL's antecedents, if any, are unknown, due to lack of written records, but the earliest records of contact between Europeans and Native Americans of the Gulf Coast region in what is now Texas and northern Mexico note a fully formed sign language already in use by the Europeans' arrival there.[2] 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 Native North Americans, the number of PISL signers 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.[3] By the 1960s, there remained a “very small percentage of this number”.[3] There are few PISL signers today.[4]

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 Indian culture and history. It remains in print.


Sign language use has been documented across speakers of at least 37 oral languages in twelve families,[5] spread across an area of over 1 million square miles (2.6 million square kilometers).[6] 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.

Each nation used a distinct manually coded language, as was the case in aboriginal Australia. In addition, there was a trade pidgin that may have never been extensively used, or was only used by a well-traveled elite. This contact language may be distinguished as Plains Standard SL, as opposed to the generic term Plains Indian SL for the various ethnic forms. These were reportedly not used by the deaf, who used home sign instead.

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. Sign, or at least contact sign, 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.


There are four basic parameters of PISL sign: the location of the hand, its movement, shape, and orientation:[7]

  • Location—this involves the spacial placement of a sign.[8] Signs may change meaning when placed in a different location, for example, in front of the face as opposed to in front of the torso.[9]
  • Movement—this involves, as implied, the way the hands move when forming the sign.[8] For example, in PISL, the signs AFTERNOON and MID-DAY form minimal pairs as they are both formed exactly the same, the only difference being that MID-DAY is stationary and AFTERNOON moves from above the head to the side in an arching motion.[10][11]
  • Handshape—as implied, each sign takes on a certain shape in the hand, called a handshape. The handshapes of signs are a very key parameter. For example, the signs YES and I-KNOW are the same in all parameters except for the handshape; in YES the hand makes the PISL J shape, and in I-KNOW the hand takes the L shape.[10]
  • Orientation—this refers to the orientation of the palm.[8] This is clearly seen in the PISL signs ABOVE and ADD. Both involve having the left hand act as a base from which the right hand rises, and both have the same location, movement, and handshapes; however, in ABOVE, the non-dominant hand is palm down, and in ADD the non-dominant hand is palm up.[11]

There may be other parameters, such as facial features. However, these function like suprasegmentals, and the four parameters listed above are the crucial ones.[8]

Although the parameters of sign are listed separately below, in actuality they co-occur with the other parameters to make a single sign.[8] It is not clear how many of the differences were distinctive (phonemic).


The Bureau of American Ethnology published a glossary of PISL signs that illustrate the handshapes involved.[12] They assigned them alphabetic letters.

  • Fist, thumb in front of fingers (A or B)
  • Fist, thumb at side of fingers (C)
  • Fingers clenched, thumb touching middle of index finger (D)
  • Fingers hooked, thumb touching back tip of index finger (E)
  • Fingers hooked, thumb at side of fingers (F)
  • Fingers hooked, thumb touching tips of fingers (G)
  • Fingers slightly bent, thumb at side tip of index finger (H)
  • Fist, except index finger forming hook with thumb holding tip of index finger (I)
  • Fist, except index finger fully extended (J, K, or M)
  • Fist, except index finger and thumb extended, thumb bends at last joint to form 90 degree angle with index finger (L)
  • Fist except index and middle fingers fully extended (N)
  • Thumb, index, and middle finger pointing upward and separated, ring finger and pinky curved horizontally (O)
  • All fingers and thumb pointing upward and separated, palm cupped (P and Q)
  • All fingers and thumb fully extended and separated (R)
  • All fingers and thumb fully extended and held together (S and T)
  • Fingers gathered to a point, palm cupped, with thumb in the middle (U)
  • Fingers slightly bent, thumb at side of index finger (V)
  • All fingers and thumb extended, relaxed (Y)


PISL uses the following locations. The various neutral spaces are the most common places for signs to occur.[9]

  • 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 would face.[9]

  • Up
  • Down
  • Non-dominant side
  • Dominant side
  • Toward signer
  • Away from signer


The movements below are found in PISL. They may be repeated in certain situations.[9]

  • 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. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Plains Indian Sign Language". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ a b 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)
  4. ^ Ethnologue report for Plain Indian Sign Language
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ Hand Talk: American Indian Sign Language.
  7. ^ Bergmann et al,2007, pp. 79-86
  8. ^ a b c d e Bergmann et al,2007
  9. ^ a b c d Cody,1970
  10. ^ a b Davis,2010
  11. ^ a b Tomkins,1969
  12. ^ Bureau of American ethnology,1881
  • Bergmann, Anouschka; Kathleen Currie Hall; Sharon Miriam Ross. "Language Files". USA. Ohio State University, 2007.
  • Bureau of American ethnology. "Annual report of the Bureau of American ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian institution". Washington, DC. Government printing office, 1881.
  • Cody, Iron Eyes. "Indian Talk". CA. Naturegraph Publishers, Inc, 1970.
  • Davis, Jeffrey E. "Hand Talk". USA. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Tomkins, William. "Indian Sign Language". Toronto, Ontario. Dover Publications, Inc, 1969

Further reading

  • Newell, Leonard E. (1981). A stratificational description of Plains Indian Sign Language. Forum Linguisticum 5: 189-212.
  • , Government Printing Office, Washington, 1881, pages 263-552First Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1879-1880"Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared With That Among Other Peoples And Deaf-Mutes,"
  • The Indian Sign LanguageClark, William Philo. 1885.

External links

  • "PISL"
  • "Indian" Sign Language Dictionary
  • "Letter Signs in Plains Indian Sign Language, Image in Harper's Magazine (March 1880)"
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