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Algerian Jewish Sign Language
description by Eden Moyal, based on the research of Sara Lanesman and her supervisor, Prof. Irit Meir z"l

ghardaia, algeria

The city of Ghardaia, Algeria, where Algerian Jewish Sign Language developed. CORTYN/SHUTTERSTOCK


The Jewish presence in North Africa has been attested for over 2000 years, even being included in the New Testament (Mark 15:21-22). Jews have lived in Algeria in particular since the first centuries of the common era (World Jewish Congress).


The region of M’zab, where Algerian Jewish Sign Language is attested, is located in the Northern Sahara in Algeria. Ghardaia, a city in the M’zab, was founded in the 11th century by the Muslim Ibadiyya sect, who brought four Jewish families with them for their skills in trade. Following their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, many Jews found refuge in the M’zab region.


In Ghardaia, Jews settled in the mellah, a walled Jewish quarter within the city, isolated from the outside Muslim population in all respects except commercially. Living in the mellah, Jews practiced their Judaism quite freely, building a synagogue and observing many ceremonial traditions (Nagel 2004). This insularity and the lack of inter-group marriage led to relatively common marriages between relatives, resulting in a high incidence of hereditary deafness in the community, among other physical characteristics.

Quick facts

Names of language:

Algerian Jewish Sign Language


Territories where it was/is spoken:

M’zab region, Algeria (Ghardaia, Aflou); Deaf communities in Israel;
Deaf communities in France (possible but unattested)

Estimated # speakers:

1900: 1,500

2023: 300



Deafness among Algerian Jews is attested as early as the late 1800s (Lanesman 2011), but is probably older than that, considering the prolonged isolation of the Jewish community in Ghardaia. The incidence of deafness was about 2.5% (Lanesman 2011, Nagel 2004, Briggs and Guede 1964). Several families are known to have had multiple deaf people in the family. In a population that never topped 2,500 Jews, it is likely that everyone in the community knew someone deaf – within their own family, through social acquaintances, or from doing business within the mellah.


Lanesman (2011: 34) writes that hearing Jews accepted the deaf community “as an inseparable part of the community.” As such, hearing Jews in Ghardaia were fluent in the sign language used by the deaf Jews.

The Uniqueness of AJSL

Algerian Jewish Sign Language developed without any influence from other sign languages. This is because Deaf children did not attend school in Algeria, and Jews in Ghardaia did not interact with the Muslim community outside the mellah except for economic ties. Further, standardized Algerian Sign Language was only officially recognized in 2002.


AJSL is unique among sign languages in that it has not undergone standardization as a result of its insularity and use mostly in informal environments. This preserves a lot of iconicity which is lost in other sign languages over the years. Even Israeli Sign Language, which is a newer language than AJSL, having been standardized in the 1930s and later, is less iconic than AJSL.


Some examples for iconicity in AJSL:

  • Signs for boy and girl reflect the individual’s sex organs. This is seen as perfectly normal in AJSL. Meanwhile, ISL signs boy with a forelock, and girl with an F shape at the earlobe, and referring to sex organs would be considered vulgar.

  • Signs for deaf or hearing refer to the slicing/chopping of the tongue. This reflects the ability to speak rather than the explicit ability to hear, indicating the conflation of speaking and hearing in the culture.

  • Signs for colors usually refer to a body part or object characteristic of that color (eg black signed as a grasping of the hair, yellow sign pointing to the sun). In contrast, ISL signs black with a B hand moving over the face, similar to American Sign Language’s forefinger across the forehead sign.


Signs for 'hearing' (left) and 'father' (right) in Algerian Jewish Sign Language, used with permission of Sara Lanesman.

Jewishness in AJSL

Just like many spoken Jewish languages, AJSL has features that make it unique from other languages and particularly reflective of its Jewish speakers. The iconicity of AJSL is especially highlighted in many of the signs for Jewish holidays and traditions.

      - The sign for Shavuot reflects an old North African tradition of throwing water on people in celebration of the holiday. This tradition is now lost, preserved only in the sign.

       - The sign for father is also the sign for beard, reflecting the Jewish customs of not shaving their facial hair. 

     - Sign for wedding is the appearance of ululation, a tradition at Algerian weddings in which women go out into the streets and ululate to invite others to celebrate.

       - The Rosh Hashanah sign signifies dipping an apple in honey, an iconic practice for the New Year.

       - The sign for henna is the act of spreading on the palm of the hand, a common practice among North African Jewry.

      - Yom Kippur is signed by indicating the closing of the mouth, which signifies the commandment of fasting on the holy day.

Yom Kippur.jpg
Rosh Hashanah .png

Signs for 'Yom Kippur' (left) and 'Rosh Hashanah' (right) in Algerian Jewish Sign Language.

AJSL outside of Algeria 

There were three main waves of Jewish emigration from Algeria. The first, in the 1940s, was a small wave of 500-600 Jews to Israel and France, with Ghardaian Jews arriving in Israel on the ships Yehuda HaLevi and Shivat Zion (Swatzfox 1989, cited in Lanesman 2011). Jews who had financial means often preferred to move to France, while many of the poorer Jews from Algeria moved to the Land of Israel.


The 1950s brought a second wave of immigration, triggered by both the establishment of the State of Israel and the Algerian War of Independence from France, in which Jews were seen as French allies by their Muslim neighbors. The final wave occurred in 1962, and there remain no Jews in Algeria today. Some of the Ghardaians who intended to settle in Israel were relocated to Marseilles, France after their ship failed to dock, and others decided to leave Israel for France because of the poor living conditions in the young country. Studies on AJSL have not been conducted in France, so we only have data on users of AJSL in Israel.


The immigration of Algerians to Israel led to dramatic lifestyle changes. This included widespread secularization of a traditionally observant society, incorporation of Deaf children into established schools and vocational training programs, and learning new languages, including Modern Hebrew and Israeli Sign Language. They also interacted with members of outside communities, including intermarriage and other integration into the broader Israeli society. This interaction influenced both the development of ISL, which came to include some AJSL signs in its lexicon, and the preservation of AJSL. Thus, Deaf Algerians began to integrate into broader Deaf Israeli communities in addition to Algerian-Israeli communities.


Algerian immigrants recalled being discriminated against by many Israelis, who often thought of them as “dangerous” and “threatening” (Lanesman 2011: 53-55). As a result, they tended to feel shame in their Algerian identity and culture, including their sign language. They especially felt inferior due to their difficulties communicating with the better-educated, more standardized speakers who had gone to Deaf schools in Europe or Israel for many years. Thus, Deaf AJSL users tended to reserve AJSL for internal use and switch to ISL when interacting with people outside the community. AJSL remained in an insular, secluded community, which actually likely helped preserve the language in an environment where it was the minority.


One native user of AJSL said that they “prefer to use AJSL in private conversations on the side and not in front of everybody, so that the other [D]eaf people don’t get insulted”.


Another said, “When speaking in AJSL, we speak in secret. The other deaf people looked

and asked what it is: 'Is the AJSL secretive?' I told them that this is just the way it is. This is the Algerian sign language.”


Hearing Algerian-Israelis have played a unique role in preserving AJSL in Israel. When Deaf Algerians moved to Israel and integrated with other Deaf Israelis, the common language became ISL. Children learned ISL in boarding schools for the Deaf in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and socialized at Deaf clubs. As a result, ISL became their predominant language. However, their hearing family members did not have the same experience. Because they could hear and did not have to rely on sign language, these family members used Hebrew with most Israelis and retained exclusive use of AJSL as a sign language within their own families and communities. Because of this, they were able to pass down “pure” AJSL to their children, without using ISL at the same time.


Nowadays, the younger generation has become more interested in learning AJSL even though they did not learn the language natively. They acquire it from their AJSL-speaking parents and then are able to incorporate aspects of the language into the ISL that they often acquire more broadly – in schools and other institutions. Words like “nerd,” “sucker,” and holiday terms have come into Israeli Sign Language from Algerian Jewish Sign Language.


AJSL came to Israel with native users who were born using the language in Ghardaia, Algeria. It was used as a native language by both Deaf signers and hearing signers. Other sign languages that immigrated to Israel with its speakers, like Moroccan sign language, disappeared when their speakers began to use ISL instead, but the high incidence of deafness in the Algerian Jewish community allowed hearing signers to preserve the language for future generations.

To cite: Moyal, Eden. 2023. Algerian Jewish Sign Language. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.

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