Journal of Language, Technology & Entrepreneurship in Africa

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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

AJOL African Journals Online