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Institute for the Languages of Finland

Finnish Sign Language

Finnish Sign Language is the native language of about 4,000–5,000 hearing-disabled Finns. About 10,000 hearing Finns also use it as their native language, second language or as a foreign language. The Finnish Sign Language community was established in the mid-19th century, when Carl Oscar Malm (1826–1863), a hearing-disabled Finn, founded Finland’s first school for the deaf after spending eleven years attending school in Sweden. Upon his return to his homeland, Malm imported Swedish Sign Language, which was gradually adopted by the Finnish hearing-disabled community, forming the basis of the current system of Finnish Sign Language. Over the years, Finnish and Swedish Sign Language have diverged so much that the two languages are no longer always mutually intelligible.

Despite some of the conspicuous signing variations encountered in different sign languages, grammatically they form a much more uniform group than spoken languages do. This syntactical uniformity is presumably due to the visual modality of sign language: it is produced with the hands, body, head and face, and reception takes place visually. Added to that, it makes use of three-dimensional space in a different way than verbal language does. Greater structural variation is encountered in spoken languages, as sound symbols allow for a wider range of different interpretations.

Despite its regional dialects and the varied signing practices favoured by different age groups, native users of Finnish Sign Language will encounter few barriers to mutual comprehension. Meanwhile, the signing system used by Swedish-speaking Finns can be regarded as its own separate language. Its users will typically modify their signing when communicating with someone using the standard variant of Finnish Sign Language. A research project on Finland-Swedish Sign Language is in progress.

More information on sign language and the hearing-disabled is available at the website of the Finnish Association for the Deaf and in Viittomakieliset Suomessa (‘Sign Language Users in Finland’, ed. Anja Malm).

Updated 01 December 2006

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