A Lexicostatistical Study: Phonological Similarity between American and Malawi Sign Languages

  • Carol A. Minton-Ryan California Baptist University
  • Mary Sorola California Baptist University
  • Jackson Brown California Baptist University
  • Pamela R. Perez Brandman University
Keywords: Sign Language Structure (An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf)


This pilot study compared the relationship between American Sign Language (ASL) and the signed language of the deaf community of Malawi. Additionally, this study considered the mutual intelligibility between the two languages. A video recording of signed words, stories, and scriptures being used by children and teachers at the School for the Deaf in the northern region of Malawi was used as a beginning lexical database for this study. From the video, a list of 50 words were placed on a list for comparison and given to deaf signers for analysis. Words were analyzed for similarity on four domains of phonology (hand shape (HS), location (LOC), palm orientation (PO), and movement (MOV)) and then coded. A modified second sample of 50 words was then obtained using the Swadesh list and both lists were then compared. Using the original list, there were similarities between the two languages 39.2% of the time overall. Using the Swadesh list, similarities existed only 32% of the time. In both cases, results from the current study appear to strongly support that Malawian sign language is unique and unintelligible from ASL, despite the potential influence from users of ASL on the signed language of Malawi.