South African Sign Language (SASL) is the primary sign language used by the Deaf in South Africa. The South African government added a National Language Unit for South African Sign Language in 2001. SASL is not the only manual language used in South Africa, but it is the language that is being promoted as the language to be used by all Deaf in South Africa, although Deaf people in South Africa historically do not form a single group.
In 1995, the previous South African National Council for the Deaf (SANCD) was transformed into the Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA), which resulted in a radical policy change in matters for deaf people in South Africa, such as the development and adoption of a single sign language and the promotion of sign language over oralism. Schools for the deaf have remained largely untransformed, however, and different schools for deaf children in South African still use different sign language systems, and at a number of schools for the deaf the use of any sign language is either discouraged or simply not taught. There are as many as twelve distinctly different dialects of sign language in South Africa.
SASL is the sign language that is used during television news casts in South Africa. Sign language is also used in the South African parliament, but different sign language interpreters are known to use different signs for the same concepts. There are around 40 schools for the Deaf in South Africa, most using a variety of SASL.
Sign language is mentioned in four South African laws, namely the Constitution, the Use of Official Languages Act, the South African Schools Act, and the Pan South African Language Board Act.
The Constitution states that a board named the Pan South African Language Board should be established to “promote, and create conditions for, the development and use of … sign language”. In terms of the law that establishes the Pan South African Language Board (Act 59 of 1995), the board may establish language bodies to advise it on “any particular language, sign language or augmentative and alternative communication”.
In terms of the Use of Official Languages Act, Act No. 12 of 2012, all government departments and government entities must have a language policy that states which languages are considered the official languages of that entity, and each language policy must also specify how that department or entity intends to communicate with people whose language of choice is “South African sign language”.
Neither South African Sign Language nor any other sign language is an official language of South Africa. In 2008 the SASL Policy Implementation Conference gathered many key role players including scholars, researchers and teachers, policy makers, advocates and governmental bodies to promote South African Sign Language to become recognised as South Africa’s twelfth official language.
According to the South African Schools Act, Act 84 of 1996, all schools must have a language policy, and that when selecting languages for such a policy, a “recognised Sign Language” should be evaluated as if it has official language status along with the other eleven official languages.
According to the “Language in Education” policy in terms of section 3(4)(m) of the National Education Policy Act, Act 27 of 1996, the main aims of the Ministry of Education’s policy for language in education include “to support the teaching and learning of all other languages required by learners or used by communities in South Africa, including languages used for religious purposes, languages which are important for international trade and communication, and South African Sign Language, as well as Alternative and Augmentative Communication”.
South African Sign Language is accepted as one of the languages of instruction in the education of Deaf learners.
Fingerspelling is a manual technique of signing used to spell letters and numbers (numerals, cardinals). Therefore, fingerspelling is a sign language technique for borrowing words from spoken languages, as well as for spelling names of people, places and objects. It is a practical tool to refer to the written word.
Some words which are often fingerspelled tend to become signs in their own right (becoming “frozen”), following linguistic transformation processes such as alphanumeric incorporation and abbreviation. For instance, one of the sign-names for Cape Town uses incorporated fingerspelled letters C.T. (transition from handshape for letter ‘C’ to letter ‘T’ of both wrists with rotation on an horizontal axis).
The month of July is often abbreviated as ‘J-L-Y’.
Fingerspelling words is not a substitute for using existing signs : it takes longer to sign and it is harder to perceive. If the fingerspelled word is a borrowing, fingerspelling depends on both users having knowledge of the oral language (English, Sotho, Afrikaans).
Although proper names (such as a person’s name, a company name) are often fingerspelled, it is often a temporary measure until the Deaf community agrees on a Sign name replacement.