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.

A Quick Shot for You Grammar Geeks and Word Nerds

Oxford commas, splitting infinitives, impact as a verb … all topics near and dear to my heart.

But I won’t expound on them much today because I’m cheek-deep in some other projects. So this is just a quick note for anyone interested in word-nerdery like me that Buzzfeed posted a photo series titled “30 Copy Editors Tell Us Their Pet Peeves.”

It’s nice to see I’m not the only one with some of these peeves. Though I don’t agree with all of the sentiments.

So what about you? After looking through copy editors’ grievances, where do you stand on these weighty issues facing our time?

(You probably already know how I feel about the singular they.)

Talking about Sex

There’s been some interesting gender-switching going on.

Well, at least in the English language there has been for at least 600 years or so.

For those of you who know me, you know I’m pretty into grammar and language history. So I’m excessively excited whenever there’s a new episode of the language podcast Lexicon Valley. And a recent one, Episode 54: Sex Workers, was particularly good.

From their site:

University of Michigan professor Anne Curzan discusses -ess, -ette, -trix, and other feminine endings in the English language.

Maybe not the most gripping sell-copy for you non-grammar folks, but let me tell you: this podcast discusses why and how words like dominatrixeditrix, and songstress work, where they came from, and how they and other sex-based words function in relation to our continuing struggle with gender identity and equality. If this stuff grabs you, then it’s worth your 30 minutes to listen to the whole thing. And probably subscribe, too.

One of the many things in there that made me think was when the guest, Anne Curzan, mentioned the lack of a standard gender-neutral third-person pronoun in English. … that is, how can we refer to him or her if we don’t know which one it is?

For example, if we’ve done away with the terrible and sexist “lady doctor” or the even worse doctress, how can we complete this sentence:

When you see your doctor, ask         how much
red wine        recommends you drink. 

Ask him? Or ask her? Either one still requires some identification of sex. (Clearly this is just a grammar example because we all know that we should drink lots of red wine. For health purposes, of course.)

So how do we form grammatically-correct sentences if we don’t know what’s under Doc’s white coat??

Let me give you my answer: it doesn’t matter. Just use them and they.

Look, I know so many people scream that it’s incorrect grammar to use a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent. “There’s just one doctor! There’s no them!”

Well, grammar changes. And besides, we already do this in popular speech.

“Who’s your English teacher?
They’ll teach you to use pronouns.”

We all know that they refers to more than one person. Except when we see a sentence like the one above. Then we all understand that the speaker’s thinking, “I don’t know whether to use he or she, so to avoid getting it wrong, I’ll use they. Plus, I don’t want to sound like an idiot with that ridiculous he or she nonsense.”

AND, if you want to get all old-school about it, we already have a historical linguistic precedent for how a plural becomes singular—remember thou? That used to be the second-person singular pronoun until you got all uppity and took over. So we already have a pronoun that works in singular and plural (though, admittedly it can get confusing in certain contexts, which is why we get y’all and youse).

For my money, the singular they does two things that make it invaluable. One is it makes our speech and writing more fluid. If you don’t know a person’s gender, don’t guess or make weird constructions like he/she or (s)he. That just draws attention to the construction of language and how hard you’re working to seem inclusive. Using they makes your communication clearer and easier.

Another thing using the singular they does is it makes our speech more inclusive in a way that many people have been pushing for. Traditionally, English would have used he for any singular of unknown gender. But many argued, and perhaps fairly, that that showed a bias against women and, to be more inclusive, we tried the him or her construction. But that doesn’t fully address current concepts of gender fluidity or the fact that gender doesn’t necessarily need to be a binary system—people don’t always fit into hims or hers.

While some people rail over he/she or suggest totally new words like ze to address the gender-neutral issue, English speakers have already fixed the problem. It’s just that most grammar books (and the English teachers who cling to them) don’t recognize the popular use. But I say it’s OK to use they.

And if a so-called purist gives you flak about “proper” grammar, tell them Shakespeare and Jane Austin also used the singular they.

English Spelling, Why You So Weird?

Ever wonder why English spelling is so freakin’ weird and what it means for poor kids trying to learn to read?

Here’s your answer, posted this week on The Atlantic: “How Spelling Keeps Kids From Learning.”

Here are some of the tidbits from the article, by Luba Vangelova, that caught my eye:

  • English has 205 ways to spell 44 sounds
  • Because of a one-to-one letter-to-sound relationship in their language, “… after Finnish children learn their alphabet … they can read well within three months of starting formal learning.”
  • “… it typically takes English-speaking children at least 10 years to become moderately proficient spellers”
  • The word busy apparently was spelled bisy until non-English-speaking Belgians operating the printing presses botched their job.
  • Having a challenging language to read has real consequences for many, many children and adults.

There’s plenty more in the article, including how people propose to address the problems that come from much of the population struggling with their “reading level.” Definitely check it out.