History and Current Status of Turkish Sign Language

By Engin Arik
Submitted to Session P4743 (Examining Sign Language Education in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
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Turkish Sign Language (T?D) is arguably one of the oldest sign languages studied so far. Compared to newer sign languages such as American Sign Language and British Sign Language, little is known about the historical, linguistic, and sociological issues regarding T?D. This paper discusses what is known about this language and what the current status of T?D is in the Turkish society.
There is evidence that a sign language was present in the Ottoman society. It was used by not only the deaf people but also deaf and hearing servants working at the Ottoman palaces and courts where verbal communication was not allowed without permission. But there is no evidence yet to link that sign language to the present-day T?D. But there is evidence that T?D has its roots at the several schools for Deaf established in the cities such as Istanbul, Izmir, Merzifon, and Thessaloniki across the Ottoman State first established at the end of the 19th century under the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II. Some new schools for Deaf were established later during the Turkish Republic. Currently, the Deaf society in Turkey is very well organized under a deaf federation, associations, and clubs which regularly organize activities related to sports, arts, and education and participate in activities for Deaf across the globe.
T?D was used at the schools for Deaf in the beginning, later it has been not recommended because of the British educational system of oralism since 1950s. But currently the ministry of education considers adding T?D courses to the curricula because of the recognition of T?D in the middle of 2000s by the Turkish Grand Assembly to accommodate the Human Rights for Disabled and Minorities recognized by EU during the ongoing negotiations to become an EU member.
Scientific research on T?D has started in the early 2000s. Since then tens of scientific publications have been made including books and journal articles. Among them, there is the first T?D grammar book published recently in Turkish and in press in English. These works have shown that T?D is not historically related to any other sign language such as American, British, or French Sign Languages; T?D is not a signed version of Turkish; and, more importantly, T?D is a full-fledged natural language, which can be investigated from all domains of linguistics--from phonology to syntax.