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Sign Language Typology – Semantic Domains Project

How are colour, numerals and kinship terms expressed in sign languages around the world?

Sign Language Typology is the systematic comparative study of sign languages. The iSLanDS Institute has researched several domains over the past decade, including possession, negation and interrogatives.

We are now surveying the semantic fields of colours, numerals, and kinship within the lexicons of over 30 sign languages from around the world, with the help of an international network of co-researchers.

Our Sign Language Typology projects aim to document and compare the linguistic structures of sign languages around the world, with a particular focus on those in non-Western countries and in village communities with hereditary deafness.

The results of comparative analyses of these data can be related to what is known about spoken languages, which will aid our understanding of linguistic universals and typological generalisations across the whole range of human language, both signed and spoken.

All of our typology studies rely in part on the contributions of deaf people from developing countries who are native users of their respective sign languages. Given that few of the sign languages in the world have been formally documented, descriptive and corpus-based work is crucial for expanding our knowledge of these languages. For our most recent research on semantic fields, we created a database of cardinal number structures in more than 30 signed languages.

Locations of the languages in our Sign Language Typology project on semantic fields


This topic focuses on the number systems of signed languages, describing aspects of number in the nominal domain. This includes cardinal and ordinal numbers, numeral incorporation in the lexicon, nominal plurals, and the use of generic quantifiers. We also look at aspects in which the signed language and the spoken languages or gesture systems of the wider hearing community may overlap, or show different properties. Numeral incorporation is the incorporation of number into lexical paradigms, when signers express the numerical value simultaneously with a lexical element resulting in one complex sign, for example, TWO#YEAR, THREE#YEAR, etc, expressed as a single complex sign. Across sign languages, numeral incorporation is attested with various semantic domains, including time units, monetary units, and educational levels. Time units include YEAR, MONTH, WEEK, HOUR, MINUTE, and SECOND.

Signs for monetary units include: POUND, DOLLAR, CENT, or whatever currency is used in the particular country. Signs for educational levels are used with classes/grades with reference to a particular school system of a country. This usually stays within the single-digit area, sometimes also including zero (“class-zero” in Turkey is kindergarten or the university prep year). Finally, numeral incorporation may occur with classifiers, e.g. one upright index finger for a single person, but three upright fingers for three people.

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Please indicate the appropriate option(s) for your sign language:

  • There are no recorded cases of numeral incorporation in the sign language.
  • Numeral incorporation is used for time units.
  • Numeral incorporation is used for monetary items.
  • Numeral incorporation is used for educational levels.
  • Numeral incorporation is used for classifiers.
  • Numeral incorporation occurs in another lexical domain. Please provide full details.

For each available option, specify the lexical signs with which numeral incorporation occurs, provide examples, and for each lexical sign indicate the cardinal numbers which can be incorporated into the sign.

In investigating the range of colour expressions in signed languages, we focus both on lexical signs for colours and on other ways to talk about colours, such as pointing towards nearby objects. Colour signs often have iconic reference to objects and body parts with a prototypical colour (e.g. the lips for the colour red), but there are many other possibilities, such as using letters from a manual alphabet, or a completely arbitrary sign. We are also interested in the relationship between the colour terms of the signed languages and the surrounding spoken language.

The forms of colour terms in signed languages are often iconic or motivated. In many signed languages, body parts are indicated to refer to colours. For example, indicating the lips to mean “red”, or the teeth to mean “white”. Another kind of object-based motivation is where the colour sign is identical to the lexical sign for that object, e.g. ORANGE to indicate the colour “orange”.

Signs may also be motivated by a link to the written language for instance in initialised signs where the fingerspelled first letter of a sign is used to for the lexical colours sign. In American Sign Language this happens in the sign for YELLOW which is the Y-handshape with a twisting movement.

In addition to these two kinds of motivation, it is also possible that a colour sign is abstract and has no iconic motivation at all.

Palfreyman, N., Sagara, K. and Zeshan, U., (2015) Methods in carrying out language typological research. In Orfanidou, E., Morgan, G. and Woll, B. (Eds). Research methods in sign language studies: A practical guide. UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sagara, K. & Zeshan, U. (forthcoming) Semantic Fields in Sign Languages. Sign Language Typology Series No. 5. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press.

Zeshan, U., ed. (2006) Interrogative and Negative Constructions in Sign Languages. Sign Language Typology Series No. 1. Nijmegen: Ishara Press.

Zeshan, U. (2007) Roots, leaves and branches – The typology of sign languages. In Quadros, R.M. de (ed.) Sign Languages: Spinning and unraveling the past, present and future. Forty five papers and three posters from the 9th Theoretical Issues In Sign Language Research Conference, Florianopolis, Brazil, December 2006. Petropolis: Editoria Arara Azul.

Zeshan, U. and Perniss P., eds. (2008) Possessive and Existential Constructions in Sign Languages. Sign Language Typology Series No. 2. Nijmegen: Ishara Press.

Zeshan, U. & de Vos, C., eds. (2012) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and linguistic insights. Sign Language Typology Series No. 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press.

Sagara, K. & Zeshan, U. (2013) Typology of cardinal numerals and numeral incorporation in sign languages. Poster presented at the 11th Theoretical Issues In Sign Language Research (TISLR) Conference, London, July.


This project has social, political and educational benefits for deaf communities, particularly in developing countries, through the involvement of deaf collaborators.

This knowledge transfer is an important step towards establishing the field of sign language linguistics in the target countries, so that educational resources can be developed and sign languages can be officially recognised.

Palfreyman, Sagara and Zeshan (2015) describe the impact that sign language typology (and its relation, cross-modal typology) can have on sign language communities:

“The quest to show how sign languages are similar to and different from spoken languages is helpful in reinforcing the understanding that sign languages are equal in value to spoken languages, while the commitment of typology to the documentation of minority languages can lead to the empowerment of sign communities, especially those whose sign languages are endangered and devalued.

“Both of these benefits are particularly valuable in countries where recognition of equality between spoken and signed languages is not yet widespread. There is also much potential for supporting the development of metalinguistic awareness and research skills among deaf people through data collection activities, and such ethical goals are increasingly becoming a non-negotiable part of sign language research.”



Project staff:

Professor Ulrike Zeshan (Project lead)

Keiko Sagara (Research staff member)


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Sign Language Country Name
British Sign Language United Kingdom Judith M Collins
Chinese Sign Language Mainland of People's Republic of China Jun hui Yang
German Sign Language Germany Bettina Eitzen
Saudi Sign Language Saudi Arabia Hend Alshowaier
Norwegian Sign Language Norway Odd-Inge Schröder and Arnfinn Muruvik Vonen
Indonesian Sign Language Indonesia Nick Palfreyman
Ugandan Sign Language Uganda Sam Lutalo-Kiingi
Estonian Sign Language Estonia Liivi Hollman
New Zealand Sign Language New Zealand Dr Rachel McKee
Finnish Sign Language Finland Ritva Takkinen
South African Sign Language South Africa Odette Swift, Abram Maripane
Japanese Sign Language Japan Keiko Sagara
Sign Language of the Netherlands Netherlands Onno Crasborn
Hungarian Sign Language Hungary Nemzetközi Halloke , Gergö Tóth, Adrian Kacsinko
Mozambican Sign Language Mozambique Inocencio Joao Raul Zandamela
Alipur Language India Sibaji Panda
Icelandic Sign Language Iceland Rannveig Sverrisdottir, Kristín Lena Thorvaldsdóttir
Greek Sign Language Greece Galini Sapountzaki
Polish Sign Language Poland Pawel Rutkowski
Jordanian Sign Language Jordan Mohammed Salha
Inuit Sign Language Nunavut, Canada Joke Schuit
Kosovar Sign Language Kosovo Robert Adam
Czech Sign Language Czech Republic Klara Richterova
Sri Lanka Sign Language Sri Lanka Brayan Susantha
Chican Sign Language Mexico Cesar Ernesto Escobedo Delgado
Mardin Sign Language Turkey Hasan Dikyuva, Ulrike Zeshan
South Korean Sign Language South Korea Kang-Suk Byun
Taiwan Sign Language Taiwan Yijun Chen
Israeli Sign Language Israel Sara Lanesman
Turkish Sign Language Turkey Hasan Dikyuva
Algerian Jewish Sign Language Israel Juan Druetta
Cambodian Sign Language Cambodia Anastasia Bradford