Explained: German Sign Language

It has little to do with German, but it’s faster - and has its own terms: an overview of German Sign Language.

Two deaf people have a conversation.
Two deaf people have a conversation. fizkes - stock.adobe.com

German Sign Language, or DGS for short, is spoken by at least 200,000 people in Germany, of whom about 80,000 are deaf. DGS has been recognized as a full-fledged language since 2002 by the Disability Equality Act.

Visual language

In DGS, the mouth image, facial expressions, hand shape, hand position and gestures play a role. Unlike spoken language, it is not linear. Wille Felix Zante of the German Association of the Deaf explains the simultaneity of the words: "You can display a lot of things in parallel, which makes sign language faster and more compressed than German". Instead of saying the names of people present, for example, you can point to them. "DGS is basically a 3D language that uses all the space in front of your body."

Other places, other signs

Owing to the late recognition of DGS, regional dialects developed in the sign language. "There are differences in months and days of the week, for example", Zante says. Idioms can also differ: "What is 'cold coffee' [literally, “kalte Kaffee”, meaning something being “old hat”] in German, we call 'old soup' in DGS". Internationally, the differences in signs are even greater; they are being used, after all, for different languages.

Language in transition

During the coronavirus pandemic alone, 2,000 new words were minted, according to the Leibniz Institute for the German Language. It's a similar story, says Zante, with sign language: "You look at how other countries handle new terms. Through deafness researchers, certain specialized signs spread. It happens very quickly." In the case of the name of Germany's new foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, he says, a specialist group even got together to determine the sign for her name.

DGS facilitates inclusion

The Institute for German Sign Language and Communication of the Deaf has been publishing various specialized sign lexicons since 1994 – for example, on the subjects of crafts or health. Recognition of DGS, says Zante, has made sign language interpreters much more readily available. Communication too now runs more smoothly, he adds, thanks to better webcams.

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