In Search of ISL's Pre-History

The complex origins of Irish sign language(s?)


  • John Bosco Conama Trinity College Dublin
  • Cormac Leonard Trinity College Dublin



Irish Sign Language, Language Contact, Language Change, Variation


Irish Sign Language (ISL) became a recognised language in the State with the passing of the 2017 Irish Sign Language Act. It is a language that has been shown to not only be a fully-fledged language, but one that exhibits complexity and significant variation by gender and age. Research into the linguistics and sociolinguistics of ISL has been carried out over more than thirty years, and it is almost twenty years since the establishment of Trinity College's Centre for Deaf Studies, source of much of this research. But an examination of the historical records reveals an even greater complexity. Modern day ISL is descended, in the main, from the signed languages that were used in Cabra's Catholic Deaf schools from the 1840s, but little is written about other signed languages, and variations thereon, that have existed on this island over the last 200 years. This article attempts to show that the history of Irish signed language(s) used by Deaf people is neither the story of signing systems invented by hearing people, nor of a single genesis leading in a straight line to modern ISL - but a layered and diverse account of social, historical, educational, and language change.




How to Cite

Conama, J. B., & Leonard, C. (2020). In Search of ISL’s Pre-History: The complex origins of Irish sign language(s?). TEANGA, the Journal of the Irish Association for Applied Linguistics, 11, 1–17.