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Sign Language in Religious Communities

By: Joanne Walker BA (hons) - Updated: 2 Nov 2012 | comments*Discuss
Monks Nuns Monastic Vow Religious

Although most people associate sign language with deaf people there are other communities of people who can hear who use it too. The most obvious of these is religious communities. Monks and nuns often take a vow of silence, depending on the order, even for just some parts of the day, and therefore do need to be able to convey some communications to others, even if it is as simple as ‘excuse me’. Therefore, sign language becomes incredibly important to these groups as a method of communication.

Differences to Deaf Sign Language

The differences to the sign languages used by deaf people are many. For a start, sign languages amongst monks and nuns is not an attempt to replicate the way others communicate through speech. This would mean that the monks and nuns were communicating freely, whereas the vow of silence is to allow them the privilege of being able to concentrate solely on God. So deaf people use sign language to convey every thought and emotion a speaking person does through speech, religious communities use it as a mere convenience.

So, it follows then that the other main difference of religious sign language is its structure. Whereas deaf sign language is a whole language system with rules particular to itself, religious sign language is more of a series of gestures, words substituted with signs. It is also worth remembering that sign language can be used by deaf people who have never been able to hear or speak whereas monks and nuns will have had this ability prior to taking their vows. In this regard, religious sign language is much more similar to that which many people think of when they think of what sign language is – a substitution system for words instead of a whole language.

And finally, while deaf sign language needs to be as universal as possible to enable the maximum numbers of people to communicate, religious sign language only exists for the members of each order to communicate. So while British and American sign language have hundreds of thousands of users worldwide, each religious sign language has only a few in comparison, depending on how many are in each order – and even these will evolve within a single monastery or nunnery.


As monastic life is so old, it goes to follow that the origins of a language system to enable monks to communicate will also be old. The first recorded use of sign language among monks is as early as the tenth century. In days gone by, monks who travelled and left the enclave of the monastery may still be silent and so the signs would have needed to be able to be understood by laymen whom the monk may meet on his travels. Of course, as the times have moved on so have customs and traditions and these days most monks would not be expected to not be able to speak to outsiders, if only briefly.

So, the benefits of sign language amongst this group are plain to see. It is interesting, however, that religious sign language is actually more of a lexicon, as it again shows how developed and complex a language the deaf sign languages are, and how learning them, as opposed to a lexicon such as the ones described above, is no easy task and should be viewed as as hard or even harder than learning a new foreign language.

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