Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Plains Sign Language (PSL) is the most sophisticated Aboriginal sign language known. PSL is a direct signaling system; its symbols are understood without any reference to a spoken language. At its zenith in the mid–nineteenth century, PSL was the principal lingua franca of the trans-Mississippi West. There were three dominant regional dialects: Southern Plains, Northern Plains, and Plateau (the mountainous region north of the Great Basin). The variation between these was mostly in vocabulary, although sign mechanics also varied.

It is not known where or when PSL originated, but it was likely the Texas Gulf Coast, where a large number of mutually unintelligible languages were spoken. Given its complexity and wide use, the PSL must be many centuries old. The earliest probable observations of the PSL by Europeans were by Spaniards in the Southern Plains in the first half of the sixteenth century. During the nineteenth century, the PSL was used throughout the Plains, from the Texas Panhandle to the Missouri River and beyond, eventually reaching the Canadian Prairies. But sign use was also prominent outside this area, wherever tribes were influenced by Plains culture.

During the period when the PSL was an ongoing lingua franca, the Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes, and Arapahos were known as especially skilled signers. It may be significant that these tribes, who spoke mutually unintelligible languages, were often allies. Adult men are thought to have been the primary users of PSL, although some women knew and used PSL as well. Apart from conversational uses, PSL was also usual in public storytelling. This use survives into the present. Signing was also used for oratory, largely before multilingual audiences.

psl makes heavy use of portrayal of meanings by descriptive gesture, thus PSL is heavily pantomimic, but many signs are also merely conventional. PSL is, then, a mixed system varying from gestures whose reading is obvious, to gestures whose meaning cannot be inferred and which must be learned. All PSL signs are built from around eighty mutually contrasting basic gestures. Each sign usually includes three or four of these, formed with either one or both hands, which may be used in a stationary position or moved about. Signs are normally produced in a continuous flow of motion, but sentences and longer segments of discourse may be set off by brief pauses. When signing is done at a distance, movements are exaggerated in various ways to make the sign more "readable."

Signing was often accompanied by verbal language. Usually the verbal speech had the same meaning as the signed message. But this does not mean that signed messages were a translation of a spoken analog, following the rules of the spoken language. PSL is an independent language with its own rules. The order of words in a signed sentence is fairly free, and the same thing can usually be said with a number of alternate word orders, though a particular word order is usually preferred. In general, subjects precede verbs, and modifiers follow the element modified.

Unfortunately, PSL is now almost completely obsolete, although some signers can still be found here and there on Plains reservations. But time is short. Soon, only memories will remain as testimony to the former existence of the fascinating and colorful system of communication which we know as the Plains Sign Language.

Allan R. Taylor

University of Colorado at Boulder

Clark, William Philo. The Indian Sign Language. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Taylor, Allan R. "Nonverbal Communication in Aboriginal North America: The Plains Sign Language." In Aboriginal Sign Languages of the Americas and Australia, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok and Donna Jean Umiker-Sebeok, 2:223–44. New York: Plenum Press, 1978.

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