Allophone. One of a set of nondistinctive varieties of a single phoneme.

Alternate sign system. A communication system developed and used by individuals who are already competent in spoken language--such as the highly elaborated and complex sign system used historically by the Plains Indians of North America.

Anthropology. The study of human origins, development, and behavior.

Anthropological Linguistics. The study of the inter-relationship between language and culture.

Arbitrariness. In language, a word's quality of independence between its sound or appearance and its meaning.

Code-switching. A situation in which a speaker uses a mixture of different languages or different varieties of a single language in the same sentence or discourse. [Akmajian et al.]

Corpus. A collection of data from and about a language or languages.

Creole. A language that developed from a pidgin by expanding its vocabulary and acquiring a more complex grammatical structure. Unlike pidgins, creoles have native speakers. [Akmajian et al.]

Dialect. A distinct form of a language (or other communication system) that differs from other forms of that language in specific linguistic features (pronunciation, vocabulary, and/or grammar), possibly associated with some regional, social, or ethnic group, but that is nevertheless mutually intelligible with them. [Akmajian et al.]

Ethnocentrism. The tendency to understand foreign cultures in terms of one's own cultural values and thus misjudging them, a tendency sometimes characterizing an implicit understanding of one's own culture as superior.

Ethnography. The fieldwork-based, holistic description of human culture, a major data-collection method of anthropology.

Extralinguistic factor. A factor influencing language variation not based in linguistic structure, such as region, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and so on. [Language Files]

Folk etymology. The popular reanalysis of a word or phrase made up of opaque parts to be more transparent, based on its meaning. For example, the reanalysis of the French chaise longue "long chair" led to chaise lounge.

Genocide. The destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. Raphael Lemkin (1944) Axis Rule in Occupied Europe coined the term by combining a Greek and a Latin root.

Gestuno. A signed expanded pidgin used for international communication among individuals from different Deaf communities representing different countries.

Gesture. The manipulation of the body to serve as a mode of communication. Gesture may be non-linguistic, as in pantomime; paralinguistic, as when it accompanies spoken language; or linguistic, as in signed languages.

Home-sign system. A simple, non-linguistic visual-gestural communication system developed by a deaf person or deaf people in the absence of a true signed language.

Iconicity. A term used to characterize the relationship between an object and a representation of that object when the representation physically resembles the object in some way. [Akmajian et al.] Compare Arbitrariness.

Jargon. 1. A special set of vocabulary associated with or used within a profession or specialized social group. [Akmajian and Language Files] 2. An elementary and highly idiosyncratic language resulting from language contact; a precursor to pidgin.

Language contact. Situation in which groups of speakers of different languages come into contact with one another. [Language Files]

Language family. A group of languages related to one another through a common language origin or ancestor.

Language isolate. A language that is not related to any other living language.

Lexical borrowing. The process of adopting words or phrases from another language. [Language Files]

Lingua franca. A language used for communication between speakers of different native languages--especially in international exchanges and diplomatic circles.

Linguistic features. Are generally classified as phonological, morphological and grammatical.

Modality, Mode of Communication. Means through which a message is transmitted for any given communication system. [Language Files]

Morpheme. The smallest unit of language that has a meaning or grammatical function. [Language Files]

Morphology. The study of how morphemes are combined to make words.

Mutual intelligibility simply means that speakers or signers of different dialects/varieties understand each other, often cited as the test for whether two language varieties are of the same language. However, in some cases mutually intelligible varieties have been considered or classified as different languages for historical, cultural, or political purposes. For example Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian are regarded as different languages, though they are generally mutually intelligible among native speakers of these countries.

Nations, First Nations. These terms recognize the sovereignty of American Indian cultural groups. American Indian groups prefer the term nation rather than tribe, which refers to one village or clan.

Non-manual. Lexical signs or morphemes that are not conveyed by the hands--such as certain facial features or mouthing patterns that are used grammatically and lexically.

Non-verbal. Communication signals (whether expressed vocally or gesturally) such as pointing, gesturing, frowning, squinting, eye-rolling, smiling, chuckling, grunting, harrumphing. These gestures or expressions are considered supplemental to language proper--that is, paralinguistic, not constituting lexicalized words or formal linguistic features.

Onomatopoeia. The iconic use of words that are imitative of sounds occurring in nature or that have meanings that are associated with such sounds. [Language Files]

Paralinguistic (see non-verbal)

Phone. The smallest articulated and perceptible discrete segment of speech or sign.

Phoneme. A class of phones identified by a native speaker as the same sound; a mental entity (or category) related to various allophones by phonological rules. [Language Files]

Phonesthesia. The apparent connection between the sounds and meanings of words; sound symbolism.

Phonology. The study of the structure and systematic patterning of phones in human language. [Akmajian et al.]

Phylum. See Language family.

Pidgin. A simplified version of some language, often augmented by features from other languages. A pidgin typically arises in colonial situations and is used at the beginning primarily as a trade language. [Akmajian et al.]

Positivism. A philosophy, posited by Auguste Comte in the mid-19th century, stating that the only authentic knowledge is that which results from the scientific method.

Pragmatics. The study of the relationships between texts and experiences--specifically, how context affects the way we use language and interpret its meanings. This informs our understanding of multilingualism, interpretation, and translations processes for example.

Primary signed language. Languages that have evolved within specific historical, social, and cultural contexts and that have been used across generations of signers.

Semantics. The study of linguistic meaning, reference, truth, and related notions. [Language Files and Akmajian et al.]

Semiotics. The study of sign systems or structures, sign processes, and sign functions. Although semiotic approaches vary widely according to discipline--it is basically the study of the characteristics of signaling systems (that is, of signs and their use).

Sign. A communicative structure composed of a signifier, which is a potentially arbitrary label, and a signified, that which is a concept referred to by the signifier.

Sign-supported speech. Speaking and signing simultaneously.

Signed language. Language with a signed modality, including the visual-gestural and tactile-gestural modalities.

Syntax. The study of the way in which phrases and sentences are constructed from smaller units called constituents; how sentences are related to each other. [Language Files]

Transparency. Refers to the iconic features of signed languages.

Universality. Refers to a common misconception that signers of any one signed language can communicate with signers of any other signed language around the world. For example, even British Sign Language and American Sign Language are not mutually intelligible. Thus far, linguistic scholars have identified over one hundred distinct signed languages around the world; and there are likely more that have not been described yet.

This website was developed by Jeffrey Davis with support from a 2006-2007 research fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation for Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL). Hand talk: Sign Language among American Indian Nations is copyright Jeffrey Davis.