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Yiddish Sign Language
Description by Bernard Spolsky

Ethnologue (2013 edition) states: "Yiddish Sign Language – a language of Israel. ISO 639-3: yds. Language status: 6a (vigorous). Classification: Deaf sign language. Apparently distinct from Israeli Sign Language." There are a number of questions about this entry, and indeed Wikipedia considers YSL a "spurious" language. There are no published descriptions or detailed attestations of its existence, although there may have been local varieties in pre-Holocaust East Europe especially in schools for the Deaf. There are however signs for Jewish concepts added to American and British Sign Language.

The origin of the entry, as reported by Charles Fennig, the current Managing Editor of Ethnologue, was a footnote in the preface of Oliver Sacks' 1990 book, Seeing Voices. But Sacks' assistant now says they cannot recall how they came up with the reference, and and it has been dropped in recent editions.

Experts in Sign Language have not heard of YSL. Wendy Sandler, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Haifa and Founding Director of the Sign Language Research Lab there, points out that Sign Languages are not connected to a language but to a place. Among Haredim, she notes, there is sometimes a stigma about deafness, so that children or adults may not have an opportunity to form a community and create a separate language. Nancy Brunlehrman, founder of the US-based Jewish Deaf Resource Center, knows of no such variety, but notes that American Sign Language includes some signs for words like Shabbat. Bram Weiser, who interprets Rosh Hashanah services into ASL, also has not heard of it. Adele Kronick Shuart, in a 1986 book that lists many signs for Jewish religious concepts in ASL, writes that "There is no Jewish Sign Language as there is no English Sign Language."

Bencie Woll, Director of the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London, agrees that there could not be one Yiddish Sign Language. She believes that there may have been Jewish variants of American Sign Language and British Sign Language, marked by additional lexical items, especially when there were special schools for Jewish deaf children. There was a school in Cracow, the Yiddishe Toib Shtim Shule, where the pupils probably used a Sign Language amongst themselves (even though the school officially used spoken Yiddish). Mark Zaurov, a Deaf historian studying the experiences of Jewish Deaf in the Holocaust, found mentions of several Deaf Jewish schools where many children spoke Yiddish; they may have had a local sign language. In a biography of her father, Eleanor Dunai reports that he attended a school for the Deaf in Budapest in 1940 where children were taught oral speech and forbidden to sign in class, but did sign outside class, albeit without a unified system. A Jewish school started in London in 1865 used manualism, but soon switched to oralism, influenced by the policy of the Rotterdam School for the Deaf, which had many Jewish pupils. There may have been distinctive sign languages used by Deaf communities in Eastern Europe before the war. But a distinct unified Yiddish Sign Language is unattested and unlikely.

Selected Bibliography

  • Dunai, E.C. 2002. Surviving in Silence: A Deaf Boy in the Holocaust, The Harry I. Dunai Story. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet.

  • Sacks, O. 2000 [1990]. Seeing Voices. New York: Vintage.

  • Shuart, A.K. 1986. Signs in Judaism: A Resource Book for the Jewish Deaf Community. Jacksonville, FL: Bloch.

To cite: Spolsky, Bernard. n.d. Yiddish 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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