Can Your Hands Speak 40 Languages?

I’m researching the French and Indian War for the third book in the Tomahawk and Saber series, and as I thought about the complications of language, I remembered some other research I’d done in the past. Plains Indian Sign Language isn’t particularly applicable to the French and Indian War (though a few of the nations involved, like the Ojibwe, used PISL), but I thought it might still be an interesting tidbit to revive on my new place on the internet.

Here it is with just a few edits:


There was, and still is, a system of signs and gestures now called Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) that was used throughout much of North America. Generally called “hand talk” by those who used it, this was what’s called an auxiliary language—a lingua franca that allowed people who didn’t share a native tongue to share news, trade, and tell dirty jokes.

Lean Wolf in partial native dress, demonstrating the sign for FRIENDS, 1880. NAA Inv. 01309600

So what, right? There have always been lingua francas (shouldn’t that be linguas franca or even linguae francae?). There’s the original Mediterranean lingua franca that gives us the term. And there’s Latin, French, Arabic, Chinese …

Well, here are some interesting facts:

  • PISL was commonly used across about 1 million square miles (that’s about a quarter of the entire continent of Europe)
  • Some estimates say PISL was used by speakers from nearly 40 (yes FORTY) different languages and multiple language families
  • There’s evidence that PISL was used within a group to communicate with deaf members, instead of (or sometimes in addition to) a separate group-specific signing system

But the most interesting part is that I’m NOT talking about an oral language. As far as I know, most lingua francas are literally lingual—spoken. This one isn’t.

Additionally, when people agree, or are forced to agree, on a common language, it’s often the language of a dominant people. That is, he who has the pointiest toys gets to talk the way he wants.

But it looks like PISL isn’t quite like that, either. It’s not like the Pawnee, Cheyenne, Ojibwe, and Apache all decided to speak Comanche. Instead, PISL isn’t an established language linked to a society, or even a sign language peculiar to one group. It’s an independent system—maybe (and I’m partially guessing here) more like a kinesthetic pidgin that developed for simple communication and trade.

(Looks like it’s time for me to continue that research.)

Also, think about THIS:
Plains Indian Sign Language was used by nearly forty distinct societies, right?

But even today there is no standard international signing system for English alone (at least not that I’m aware of). We have American Sign Language, Auslan, British Sign Language, and Signed Exact English … some of which are mutually unintelligible.

The point is this: PISL is fascinating in its scope, uniqueness and use. And, sadly along with many other American Indian tongues, it’s considered an endangered language.

There is some effort to document and revive it, and I’d highly recommend poking around the Hand Talk: American Indian Sign Language website set up by Jeffery Davis at the University of Tennessee. There’s more information, illustrations, links to other resources, and some video of PISL users.


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