Reflections on the names of the sign language of Iran, and a proposal

by Ardavan Guity

International Sign/American Sign Language
Esharani

Introduction

I am a deaf linguist from a deaf family in Iran and have worked with the deaf communities in Iran for many years. When I became a doctoral student in linguistics at Gallaudet University, and developed my dissertation proposal for a grammatical sketch on our sign language (i.e. the sign language of Iran), I proposed a new name – Esharani.  This blog discusses the names of our sign language and encourages collaboration between academic scholars and deaf communities. 

I have seen various phrases – Farsi Sign Language, Persian Sign Language, Iranian Sign Language, and Zaban Eshareh Irani (ZEI). In this blog I explore these phrases and their impact on the Iranian deaf communities and their ideologies. I am acutely aware of the complexity of my position: as a deaf man from Iran, I am using the sign language myself, and as a linguist trained in fieldwork and usage-based approaches, I am also studying the language. While I want to actively participate in the naming of my language, I also wish to do it along with my community in a transparent process.

Language ideologies

A linguist entering a community may encounter implicit attitudes or ideologies about the language(s) within the community. Language ideologies include beliefs, cultural values, socioeconomic status, and history. Some individuals within a community could (unwittingly) devalue their language. For instance, they think their language is worthless because the majority of people do not use it or because another language is the privileged language within the larger community. Many deaf people in Iran have been immersed in an oralist educational system since the 1920s. The use of sign language in the classroom has been banned and as a result, many deaf people do not value the sign language of Iran.

Naming sign languages

Some sign language naming practices are briefly discussed here.  ‘One country, one language’ is typically a reason why the sign language name would follow the country name even if the diversity within the sign language is extreme, as with Indian Sign Language. Using a single name may have geopolitical advantages but be at the expense of acknowledging the existing language diversity. 

Some sign languages are related to aspects like ethnicity, for example, Khmer Sign Language in Cambodia (which follows the name of the dominant ethnic group and their spoken language). The sign language name can also be related to spoken languages used in the area, for example, calling ASL-influenced sign languages in West Africa “French Sign Language” or “English Sign Language.” Sometimes these naming practices obscure the diversity of sign languages.  Yet other sign language names follow the names of regions or cities, such as the approach used by Woodward in Thailand and Viet Nam.

Often abbreviations are used for sign languages, which include the country’s name and avoid mentioning the spoken language. Many sign languages are well-known by their acronyms like ‘BSL’ for British Sign Language or ‘ASL’ for American Sign Language. Some choose syllables or groups of letters from the sign language names to create shorter names:  for example, ‘Libras’ is from Língua Brasileira de Sinais, ‘Auslan’ is from Australian Sign Language, and ‘Bisindo’ is from Bahasa Isyarat Indonesia.

Fieldwork interviews with deaf people

My work as a linguist focuses on field-based research in which I collect language data from the communities to create a language documentation I can research for my own purposes, as well as create multipurpose resources for the communities. To that end, in 2018, I traveled to six cities in Iran and met with fifteen people that the deaf organizations selected for my fieldwork. Most participants, unused to sign language elicitation sessions, thought that they would take tests on their Farsi academic skills because of their school experiences. When the deaf Persian female elicitor asked the participants how many languages they knew, they answered that they knew one language and that was Farsi. This response shows a pattern within the deaf communities where sign language is not accepted as a language. Deaf people in Iran have internalized the idea that they know only Farsi. They said that because “our sign language” did not have a name, their signing was a different mode of Farsi. I remembered how I always thought my signing was Farsi until my hearing grandfather told me it was not. For instance, mouthing Farsi while signing made it logical to think of the sign language itself as Farsi. When the elicitor suggested that our sign language is separate from Farsi, participants were shocked. They had thought that their sign language was flawed because the grammatical structure is not the same as that of Farsi. Both the elicitor and I explained that the sign language of Iran has its own grammatical structure, spatial features not found in spoken languages, and signs with unique meanings not found in Farsi. 

When I explained that the sign language used in Iran is important to document, participants could not believe me. The deaf communities experienced Farsi as a privileged language and had no pride in their sign language. They felt that if we separated signing from Farsi, they would suffer a demotion in their societal status. Participants shifted their language ideologies during the interviews I conducted. My research led participants to start valuing their sign language. For instance, participants typically said something like, “Wow! I didn’t know that… I feel so much better about my sign language.” They started acknowledging the existence of a sign language in Iran and its value ideologically.

Historical nomenclature of the sign language of Iran

Deaf communities typically start calling their sign language ‘sign’, ‘deaf sign’ or ‘deaf language’ after it emerged (Lucas, 2001). Similarly, the deaf communities in Iran had always used the Farsi words ‘زبان اشاره ‘ (Zaban Eshareh) corresponding to ‘sign language’. Below, I describe, in chronological order, other names used for the sign language of Iran in various publications. These names were determined by hearing scholars with little connection to the deaf communities. I was struck by an observation by Haspelmath (2016) who notes that “(L)inguists are sometimes confronted with choices concerning language names. For example, one and the same language may be referred to as Persian or Farsi” (p. 82). It got me thinking that the names we as deaf Iranians had been using might not be the most appropriate.

Farsi Sign Language: In 1980, the dictionary “Culture: Farsi Sign Language For Deaf, 1st Volume” was published by Aghamohamad from the Iranian National Organization for Welfare of the Deaf (see Figure 1). ‘Farsi Sign Language’ appears in this book and is the first phrase labelling the sign language used by deaf communities in Iran.

Figure 1: “Culture; Farsi Sign Language for the Deaf”, 1st volume

In fact, Farsi is not exclusive to Iran, since it is spoken in many neighboring countries so the phrase ‘Farsi Sign Language’ as the label is problematic. The sign language use I have described in my work seems exclusive to Iran. But Farsi is not the only language in Iran.

Persian Sign Language: Starting in 1984, the first to fourth editions of the “Dictionary of Farsi Sign Language; Standardized Signs” were published by a university group in Tehran. Deaf communities in Iran had been considering the dictionary controversial for years, declaring on social media that the editions were the results of a misguided effort to standardize the sign language. Also, the communities decried that the editions had too many borrowed ASL signs. The first edition was called “Collection of Deaf Signs” in Farsi, but the English cover had a different name, “Persian Sign Language Collection for the Deaf” (see Figure 2). Within this book, the phrase ‘Farsi Sign Language’ was also used as a synonym for ‘Persian Sign Language’.

Figure 2: “Persian Sign Language Collection for the Deaf”, 1st edition (1989), English cover

The phrase ‘Persian Sign Language’ shares the same issues as ‘Farsi Sign Language’ since, as shown in the historical record, Persia was an empire encompassing Iran. Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and several other countries are still considered to be homes of the Persian people and their culture, even though the Persian empire has officially ended. ‘Persian’ is the well-known English translation of ‘Farsi’.  The word ‘Persian’ has a broader meaning and includes a cultural, linguistic, and ethnic identity that transcends current geopolitical boundaries.

Iranian Sign Language: In 1999, the phrase ‘Iranian Sign Language’ was used for the first time by Bijari in a master’s thesis, Checking Deaf Language and Culture in Tehran. It appears that the hearing author was not involved in any deaf community in Iran and so deaf people, who typically do not have access to academic publications, had never known about it.

While it is true that the English phrase ‘Iranian Sign Language’ is more specific to the country of Iran, there are other signed languages that share the same acronym, ISL, such as Israeli Sign Language, Irish Sign language, and Indian Sign Language. It may be better to avoid confusion about which country the acronym is referring to.

Zaban Eshareh Irani: In 2014, Behmanesh (a deaf Iranian), Novak (a hearing white American female linguistics graduate student at Gallaudet University), and I created a video Linguistic Research and Zaban Eshareh Irani. Zahan Eshareh Irani (ZEI) is a Farsi phrase written in the Roman script literally meaning ‘language sign(ing) Iranian’, and is basically the Farsi translation for ‘Iranian Sign Language’. We had noticed the confusion in the Iranian deaf communities regarding the sign language names and were exploring alternatives. We suggested that ‘Zaban Eshareh Irani’ described the country of the sign language accurately. Its ZEI acronym is distinctive from ISL. Deaf people belonging to Iranian ethnic groups such as Gilakis, Kurds, and Balouchis, which use other spoken languages, felt that spoken Farsi is only for people in big cities. These ethnic groups may even consider themselves as using sign language variants existing within or separate from the sign language I am researching. ‘Irani’ is perceived as including all of the ethnic groups and cities. Shortly after we proposed ZEI, we realized, from self-reflection as well as conversations with the signing communities in Iran, potential issues with using ‘Zaban Eshareh Irani’, for example the too-long sequence of words and that the acronym, ZEI, could not be used because Farsi does not have any capitalization nor acronyms. English speakers may be comfortable with using acronyms but not Farsi speakers.

Esharani (the proposal of a new name and sign name):

Most of the naming of the sign language of Iran has been done by hearing researchers weakly connected to the signing communities. As a member of the signing community myself, I want to suggest a new name for our sign language. To that end, I came up with three arbitrary names not derived from any existing Farsi morphemes: Zabaishari, Bishari, and Ishari. However, Sara Siyavoshi (a hearing linguist and ally from Iran) suggested using Esharani, اشارانی which is composed of the Farsi morpheme ‘eshar’ ( ‘sign’), ‘ran’ ( ‘Iran’), and ‘i’ (a common Farsi suffix for language names). Farzaneh Soleiman Beigi (a deaf linguist from Iran) and I both found ‘Esharani’ to be acceptable. We all agreed that this proposed name still needs to be discussed with the deaf communities in Iran.

The sign I propose to use for Esharani is developed from the signs glossed as SIGN+IRAN (see Figure 3 and video 1). The weak hand is in the SIGN configuration with the five handshape, and the dominant hand is in the fist configuration with the thumb out. The dominant hand moves in a spiral movement over the weak hand, indicating all of the cities in Iran.

Figure 3: the new sign name of ESHARANI
Video 1: the new sign name of ESHARANI

As I have demonstrated specifically for Iran and through some naming practices in other signing communities, sign language names can have long histories and have a profound impact on language communities, ideologies, and political practices. I have contacted the National Network of Iranian Deaf NGOs (NNIDN) and a representative said the proposed name for our sign language should be shared with the deaf communities in Iran via a video explaining why this name is recommended. I will share the video and this blog on social media.

Acknowledgments

I appreciate the involvement of all of the deaf participants in my research.

I acknowledge Julie A. Hochgesang, Sara Syavoshi, Annelies Kusters, Kristin Snoddon, and Faraneh Soliman Bigi for their feedback on this blog.

References

Bahadori, I. E. Pirozi, M. Tehranizadeh, H. Mosavi, ML. Mahmodi, R (1989). Farsi Sign Language, 1st edition. “Persian Sign Language Collection For The Deaf” Tehran, Iran: Educational Department of Deaf Rehabilitation, University of Social Welfare and Rehabilitation Services.

Bijari, M. (1999). Checking Deaf Language and Culture in Tehran. Master’s thesis for anthropology major. University of Tehran.

Lucas, C. (2001). The Sociolinguistics of Sign Languages. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press


Ardavan Guity is a Linguistics Ph.D. candidate at Gallaudet University. His dissertation is titled “Esharani Grammatical Sketch; An Initial Description of the Lexicon and Grammar.” Born in Tehran, Iran, his activism started at age 12 as a UNICEF representative for deaf and disabled children. Since then, he has been highly involved in the deaf communities of Iran as an advocate. In 2013, he came to the USA to pursue further education, including a doctoral degree.  He currently teaches linguistic classes at Gallaudet University as an adjunct professor. He’s on Twitter as @ArdavanGuity

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