Structural borrowing: The case of Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) and Kiswahili contact signing

  • GJ Jefwa


Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) is a visual gestural language used by members of the deaf community in Kenya. Kiswahili on the other hand is a Bantu language that is used as the national language of Kenya. The two are world's apart, one being a spoken language and the other a signed language and thus their “… basic structural units are of necessity fundamentally very different…” (Valli and Lucas: 1996). However, preliminary investigations have revealed that sometimes Kenyan signers use KSL signs while mouthing in Kiswahili. However, this does not necessarily put a case for the existence of a Kiswahili sign language since KSL is a natural language with its own autonomous grammar distinct from that of any spoken language. In this paper, we shall argue that the Kiswahili mouthed KSL signs are an outcome of contact between KSL – Kiswahili bilinguals and their hearing Kiswahili bilingual counterparts. Following Valli and Lucas (1996). We will further argue that there are no contact signs in a situation where a sign language is in contact with a spoken language this being due to the fact that spoken languages do not have signed forms and thus no new signs are formed due to this contact. The signing in a KSL – Kiswahili contact results into a phenomenon called contact signing. The paper further argues that as a result of interaction between KSL and Kiswahili, KSL users sometimes code switch/code mix in a contact situation that involves hearing Kiswahili users and surprisingly in some deaf – deaf contact situations. This interaction has led to what Davis (in Valli and Lucas op cit) call “unique phenomenon” that manifests itself in – mouthing, finger spelling, code switching/mixing and contact signing.

Journal of Language, Technology & Entrepreneurship in Africa Vol. 1 (2) 2009: pp. 160-174

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eISSN: 1998-1279