HK protesters' "sign language"

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A Twitter thread from Incunabula, starting here:

The second item in this thread leads to a succession of videos that show how the Hong Kong protesters use these hand signals in real life to move supplies quickly and efficiently to front lines:

For linguists, we have this thread from Bill Benzon with commentary on whether this mode of communication constitutes "sign language". As Ben Zimmer points out:

Dan Everett, who's currently writing a biography of C.S. Peirce, makes the Peircean point that the signs being used are icons and indexes but not symbols, which you need for a full language.

Upon initial encounter, I thought that this couldn't be a language since it only has nouns, but no verbs.  Then I realized that it does have at least one verb ("Raise Up"), and there must be others as well.

In the history of writing — at least in the development of Chinese writing — it is harder to convey specific verbs than it is to indicate particular nouns.  For the latter, you can "picture" them, but for the former all you can do is borrow the sounds of those nouns to stand in for the sounds of homophonous verbs, e.g., using "wheat" — rebus fashion — to stand for "come", as explained in the comments to this post:

"Of shumai and Old Sinitic reconstructions" (7/19/16)

Here are the relevant graphs from Wiktionary, together with their Old Sinitic reconstructions:

lái 來 ("come") — glyph origin (you can see that it starts out looking like a stalk of wheat with ear, leaves, stem, and roots)

Old Sinitic:

(BaxterSagart) /*mə.rˤək/, /*mə.rˤək/
(Zhengzhang) /*m·rɯːɡ/

mài 麥 ("wheat") — glyph origin (augmented form of lái 來 initially used in the borrowed sense of "come"; later switched for the latter's original sense of "wheat")

Old Sinitic:

(BaxterSagart): /*m-rˤək/
(Zhengzhang): /*mrɯːɡ/

Returning from the Bronze Age to the present day in Hong Kong, whether or not the hand signals employed by the Hong Kong protesters are only a set of icons and indexes but not symbols may be moot, but one thing is sure:  it is an another interesting instance of resourceful ways in which the protesters maximize the effectiveness of communication among themselves, as we've witnessed in numerous posts, for which see "Go protest on Causeway Road" (8/4/19) and the "Readings" section with which it concludes.


  1. Jerry Packard said,

    August 6, 2019 @ 10:30 am

    It seems like those hand signals are indeed icons and indexicals and not symbols, but I'm not sure that rules them out as language. Language uses all three. As the signs become more abstract they become less iconic and indexical, and they function as symbols when the relation between the sign and that which it signifies becomes arbitrary and not aided by context. So when they start finger spelling we will be able to consider it truly symbolic, but it may in fact still be considered language even before that happens.

  2. Meg Wilson said,

    August 6, 2019 @ 2:33 pm

    This seems to me pretty clearly in the realm of "home sign" systems developed in families with a deaf family member, and possibly pidgins. Definitely language-like in some respects, definitely not full-blown language.

  3. cliff arroyo said,

    August 6, 2019 @ 4:23 pm

    "seems to me pretty clearly in the realm of "home sign" systems"

    or sign systems in silent monasteries or divers… interesting and worth documenting but nowhere near as complex and rich as real sign languages.

  4. John Walden said,

    August 6, 2019 @ 11:45 pm

    They do mean, for example, 'Bring (a/two) helmet(s)' so there is slightly more context than just 'helmet', in other words only what the thing is.

  5. KeithB said,

    August 7, 2019 @ 9:00 am

    Crane hand signals have verbs:

    Not sure if it is a language, though.

  6. John Rohsenow said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 4:55 pm

    Reminds me of the hand signals used by the military to communicate
    silently in combat situations.

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