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Sign language variation

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Variation in language means the different users of a language have different ways of saying the same thing. It is a normal part of all language communities.

There are a number of different causes of variation in Auslan. Variation can occur in the vocabulary of the language (i.e., what signs a person uses), or in the grammar (i.e., how a signer combines these signs into sentences).


One of the most important types of variation in Auslan is regional variation. Signers in one part of Australia may use different signs from signers in another part. These different varieties of the same language are called regional dialects. Sometimes people call these differences an accent (e.g., people say someone from Sydney signs “with a Sydney accent”), but this is incorrect. Accent refers to differences in how someone pronounces a word or makes a sign, not the use of different words or signs.

Regional variation also occurs in spoken languages. Some English speakers use the word trunk for a car boot, and some use the word vest for singlet. In some areas of Australia, people say swimming costumes and potato scallop, and in other areas, they say bathers and potato cake.

Thus, there are many different dialects of English spoken around the world. In Auslan, there appear to be two main dialects: the southern dialect used in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, and the northern dialect used in New South Wales and Queensland. These two different dialects traditionally had very different signs for numbers (e.g., ELEVEN) and colours (e.g., BLUE), as well as for some areas of the vocabulary (e.g. YESTERDAY).

Each state also has its own sign variation, and signers often talk about “Adelaide signs” (Adelaide has a sign WHITE that is not found in other states) or “Perth signs” (Perth has a sign BIRTHDAY that is not used in other states). Some of this variation exists because the first British deaf migrants came from different parts of Britain and brought different dialects of British Sign Language with them. It also exists because deaf students attended the schools in their state and do not have much contact with signers from other states. Another reason for this variation is that Auslan has not formally been taught or even recognised in the school system for many years, and there is no national television program in Auslan that can spread the same signs all over the country.

Social group

Another important cause of variation is due to signers having different social networks. Signers tend to mix with their families and their friends, work in different places, and socialise in different religious or sporting groups, or go to different deaf clubs. People will often feel most familiar with the signs used in their social groups in the community, and not those used by other groups.


Research on American Sign Language has shown that it has ethnic variations. Black signers and white signers use different signs for SCHOOL, BOSS, and FLIRT, for example. It is not known if there is variation in Auslan due to different ethnic backgrounds, although some deaf Aboriginal people in areas like far north Queensland do seem to have some signs of their own. The deaf community includes signers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but unlike the difference between black and white American signers, people from different ethnic backgrounds were not separated into different schools 1.


There is also some variation according to gender (i.e., differences between the way men and women sign). Some men and women use different signs for HELLO and TERRIBLE, for example.


There are also age differences in the use of Auslan. Many older signers have ways of signing that are different from younger signers. Technological change, for example, may mean the older generation’s sign for something is different from younger people’s sign (e.g., TELEPHONE). Older signers also use more fingerspelling than younger signers.


Traditionally, Catholic deaf children were educated in different schools and taught using the Irish one-handed manual alphabet and signs based on Irish Sign Language. These differences can still be found amongst older signers in the community. Older signers may also have been educated using the Rochester Method (i.e., an approach that emphasised the use of fingerspelling). Younger signers may have been educated in schools that used Signed English. All these different educational experiences naturally have an impact on the variety of signing used by different people in the community.

Family background

One of the most important influences on grammatical variation in Auslan is the signer’s family background. Deaf signers who learn Auslan as a first language in a deaf family tend to use a richer type of sign language with a more complex grammar than those who learnt the language later in life. Such signers are known as native signers. Research on other sign languages shows that there can be important differences between the types of language used by native signers versus the language of nonnative signers 2. Those who have English as a first language may, for example, tend to use a variety of signing influenced by English.

Despite all this variation, fluent Auslan signers have little trouble communicating with each other. It is important that all of us learn about and accept the variation in Auslan because it is an important part of the deaf community’s heritage and of individual deaf people’s identity.

Notes and further reading

  1. Lucas, C., Bayley, R. & Valli, C. (2003). What’s your sign for PIZZA? An introduction to variation in American Sign Language. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press.
  2. Emmorey, K. (2002). Language, cognition and the brain: Insights from sign language research. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Article written by Dr Adam Schembri
Dr Schembri is one of Australia’s best known sign language linguists. This article was written for Deaf Australia (formerly AAD) and first published in AAD Outlook, Vol. 14, Issue 7, August 2005.

Information provided by Deaf Australia Inc. Reproduced with permission.
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Last updated: 9th Apr, 2024




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