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In my exploration based 5e game the group are about to enter an area where the local population (known as Forestfolk) communicate largely through sign language. I want to roleplay this effectively while remaining respectful of real languages and real people who rely on sign language every day.

A bit of worldbuilding lore

Originally the Forestfolk used sign language because one of the native races is commonly deaf and the others learned it to accommodate. They soon discovered it grants a distinct advantage to moving silently while hunting, communicating at distance, communicating across dialects or distinctly different vocal anatomy and at allowing a better connection with nature by not disturbing it with harsh noises.

Eventually it became the cultural norm to communicate almost entirely in sign language. Spoken word reserved for when something significant or ceremonial needed to be said and even then they both speak and sign the words.

Learning to sign and understanding the reasons for it will be part of earning the trust of this faction and something I want my players to feel natural, realistic and fulfilling.

What I'm looking for

I (to my regret) do not know sign language. However I'm consistently committed to my homebrew worlds being diverse and representing the full spectrum of (meta-)humanity, which should include those with disabilities. It's important to me to portray these respectfully but also make the use of sign language meaningful at the table.

By meaningful at the table I mean that I don't want to simplify it to "they say X in sign language" as I would with Elven or other fictional language that I also don't know. However I'm having trouble figuring out how to do that. I don't just want to wave my hands in the air while talking as I think that would be demeaning.

So far my best plan of action is to try to learn a few meaningful gestures or phrases and use these regularly so that players can learn their meaning through repeated observation. But I would love some advice from people who can actually use sign language on the best way to go about it, in particular those that have implement it at their table with other players who don't speak it.

Answerers are reminded of Good Subjective / Bad Subjective, I'm looking for first hand experience or well supported research not idle idea generation.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you elaborate on how the players will understand what's being said in sign language? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 6, 2022 at 13:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pyrotechnical They won't at first, that's part of what I'm asking really. I'm planning to sign simple phrase in consistent contexts that the players can pick up over time. E.g. "Yes" "No" "Follow" "stay" "thankyou". However I am hoping somebody might have a better solution than that. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Oct 6, 2022 at 13:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth I'm not planning to imitate any specific sign language overall. But if I'm going to pick up a couple of gestures it will be from Auslan (Australian Sign Language). \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Oct 6, 2022 at 16:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm voting to close as opinion-based due to the answers that have come in. Only one answer is supported with stated and explained expertise. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Oct 8, 2022 at 14:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I think that's a poor judgement and what needs sorting are the unsupported answers. This has attracted at least one good supported answer so I don't see why the OP should suffer the consequences wrought by the answerers... \$\endgroup\$ Oct 8, 2022 at 16:08

6 Answers 6

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I'll preface this by stating my experience. I have a degree in deaf studies taught largely by deaf/hard of hearing people. I am considered fluent in American sign language (although I'm a little out of practice these days) and I've interacted with the deaf community at several college and community events. I've never brought conversational sign language to a table of non-speakers but most people got when I asked for a drink non-verbally or to pick up a snack.

A World of Language

One of the most interesting things that you brought up was how sign language was made to accommodate a disproportionate number of deaf people in a region. This has some mirroring in the real world as places used to concentrate these people without understanding that they were as competent as everyone else save one sense. For your world it also aided in hunting which again has similar real world parallels. Military hand signals developed out of a need to visually represent important information in the field.

Your question represents a larger understanding of the underlying problems of using different languages in game. As stated in other answers, most people don't prefer to learn a new language at the best of times. And there are some easy steps to do if we make a few assumptions.

Action, Place, Time

You stated that your players' characters won't immediately know this language. Now I would challenge that slightly and give your players an in by allowing them to know another "sign language". In real life, ASL (American Sign Language) is different from French is different from British etc. but they have parallels that might make it easier. Even if you don't think they would know some sign language, the sign language for food or water is so universal that you could probably do the sign and your players would know it very quickly. However, if they don't then remember Action, Place, Time.

Make the signs unmistakable. To kill, describe a violent cutting motion across the body. To drink, describe them mimicking taking a cup and drinking from it. To tell the Noon, describe them pointing straight up at the sky or mimicking a sun shining down. To tell of a river, describe them motioning like how a river would flow. In real life, a lot of signs for basic things are nearly what you think they are.

A Place and Time for Everything

You stated that important information can be conveyed verbally. So strangers to a strange land might not get the immediate "sign language" experience from those who can be verbal. Not to say don't use signs, but to have a ready translator. Dipping into the "you don't understand what they're conveying" too much will be frustrating for players. You might consider giving them a few signs to start then have someone switch to verbal once they see the lack of understanding. I also would stray away from making too many "sign language" checks (e.g. using Insight to understand what they're conveying). It might be ok once or twice for more complex ideas, but the unmistakable signs shouldn't be left to RNG.

A Community of Respect

Finally, in our world as I imagine in yours, these are a people who want to be treated with respect. It's easy to be disrespectful when you don't know what is considered wrong. As such, I've already made a comment on an answer and now I'll include it here. In my experience (Western US), Deaf people don't like to be considered as disabled and are generally proud. So maybe don't consider using such terms when talking about your people. I would even go so far as to stray from having a verbal npc refer to a nonverbal one like "Oh they can't hear". Stick to neutral/positivity when referring to Deafness like "Oh they prefer our visual language".

So in summary, your idea to stick to basic phrases is apt but I would go even further and limit the amount of time that your players' "don't understand" the signs presented to them. Give your players an out by allowing some of the most basic signs to be "free" and allowing them a verbal guide to the language that can give you narrative and descriptive control over what signs to use. Don't rely too heavily on this language being Exotic and hard to understand; in real life American Sign Language (and at least Fingerspelling) are pretty easy to pick up. And most importantly, treat it with respect. These aren't strange and odd people, they're normal people who speak a different language. Hope this helps.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I might be missing the woods for the trees here but this is full of respectful information and language, but I don't see any actually gameable advice or how this would be different from a way to treat any other language. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Oct 7, 2022 at 15:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri I would argue that there are pieces of gameable advice throughout the answer. Allowing characters to have a background that supports sign language capabilities, straying from making this just about skill checks, and going more heavy on narrative. While that could be said for multiple languages, the OP wants that respect specifically to be given to this language. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 7, 2022 at 16:12
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In my experience, don't treat it any differently to any other language

First the mechanics and the fun at the table will be ruined. Most people don't enjoy learning languages, or sign languages. If they did a lot more people would know them. There is also significant difficulty learning any kind of language even if just a few words and some people simply can't no matter how much they might want to (I am a case in point).

So forcing a new mechanism and making people learn something is taking the roleplaying out of the game, and turning into something else.

Maybe your players came for this kind of experience, but if they did you probably wouldn't be asking this question.

What about sensitivity?

Again in my experience being treated differently is the main bugbear for deaf people and differently-abled of all varieties. Deaf people might want more people to understand sign language but not so we can feel all good about ourselves that we have helped them, but so they can feel less 'othered'.

Making your sign language different to another language is specifically 'othering' it in a setting where there really is no need.

Of course there are many different opinions, and this kind of thing can be sensitive for people, so in the end despite this being based on my own experience with sign language it won't be universal.

What I would also say is that if you are playing in privacy, then having the respectful mindset you seem to have is great, but if you are playing in the open that is even more reason to not even try. All the respectful intentions in the world can look bad to an observer.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you actually tried to incorporate sign language into your games? Do you have experience with the hearing impaired to add into your answer as support? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Oct 6, 2022 at 15:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ The question is asking for solutions, but your first section seems to be assuming a particular solution and saying it won't work...but I'm not sure what that solution is. "The mechanics and fun at the table will be ruined" ... by what, exactly? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 6, 2022 at 15:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Respectfully, specifically when it comes to the Deaf community, I wouldn't quite go with "disabled". I'd recommend just using deaf. For my experience on this matter, I have a degree in deaf studies taught largely by deaf/hard of hearing people. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 6, 2022 at 16:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I mean it exists in my worlds, but I have never tried to treat it differently to any other language. My only experience is talking with deaf friends who basicaly said to me what I am saying in this answer. More specifically I research things like real life estimated % of various things and just have random rolls when I generate an NPC to decide things like sexuality, and this kind of thing. So the chance of meeting a deaf person in my games is about the same as in real life, and sign languages are part of that. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Oct 6, 2022 at 17:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GuidingOlive using disabled was meant to alude to how we 'other' people who are different to us more than call deaf people disabled, but it does read badly. Edited (hopefully well enough). Thank you! \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Oct 6, 2022 at 17:31
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By treating it differently to Elvish, you are disrespecting it

Sign languages are full-blown natural languages (e.g. American Sign Language ASL). That is they have their own vocabulary, grammar, idioms, nuanced synonyms and antonyms, and the ability to discuss complex concepts like linguistics etc. They are not non-verbal versions of the local language.

A person fluent in ASL thinks in ASL, they don’t translate the concepts to English like a non-fluent speaker does. Just like a person fluent in French thinks in French, they don’t translate to English.

It is speculated that ASL is a creole of French Sign Language and local American sign languages.

Since it’s a language, you should treat it the same as other languages. Doing something else is calling it for special treatment. That’s disrespectful.

Hunting/battle signs

You appear to be confusing a sign language with battle/hunting signs. The latter are literal translations of some very limited concepts in the local language. These are limited to imperative commands and are not a language because, among other things, you can’t discuss philosophy in them.

By the way, there is no reason why people who speak sign language would not also use hunting/battle signs. In fact, they almost certainly will because sign language is not suitable for long-distance, discrete communication, just like spoken language isn’t.

Language evolution

Human language evolves quickly. It is generally accepted that a modern English speaker could communicate if they went back in time no more than 500 years. Much further than that and they might as well be sent to Germany or Italy. They’ll be words they recognise but the pronunciation will be totally different and sop will the grammar. We can read Shakespeare as he wrote it and it just seems quaint. But Shakespeare spoke modern English and what we see is a difference in dialect. However, most of us can’t read Chaucer as he wrote it, we need a translation, because he spoke Middle English - a different language.

Where’s the dividing line? Well, there isn’t one, just like there is clearly a difference between a Cornish and a Devon accent, you can’t mark it on a map without making a judgement.

We are actually engaging in an unprecedented language experiment. Worldwide mass migration and communication is slowing language evolution, pruning dialects, and, in some cases, driving language extinction.

Worldbuilding

Maybe Elvish is unchanged and unchangeable - the language of creation, if you will. Maybe this means that new ideas and concepts cant be expressed in Elvish and Elves have to switch to Common to discuss all the other races that seem to be around these days.

Common is almost certainly a creole or pidgin of the languages of the “trading” races. Early versions of D&D explicitly called it out as such

Take your sign language and treat it as a language: it has accents, full-blown dialects, and completely different languages if its old enough. It influences and is influenced by the languages around it. Perhaps there is a single word concept in a local spoken language for which there is no direct or simple translation so a new word is invented for it. Older people use a phrase to say what younger people use a word to say - e.g. lol in English.

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(I'm a hearing person, who knows a little bit of Auslan, and has spent time with people in the Deaf community in Australia. I'm basing my post on those experiences.)

Firstly, I think it's cool that you have signed languages in your game, and are thinking about the best way to portray them. One place to start would be to look at some of the myths about sign languages and think about how to convey a more realistic picture. This article describes some common misconceptions. To me, the most significant idea is that sign languages are full languages in their own right, with their own structure, that can express all the functions that spoken languages do, in their own way. You could show things like:

  • people using sign language for many different purposes, such as telling jokes, teaching, arguing/debating, comforting someone, telling a story, etc.
  • an interpreter saying that something is hard to translate, or there is no exact word in Common for a particular sign
  • avoiding having people sign and speak at the same time. It would be quite hard to do, because the grammar (e.g. the word order) would be different between the two languages.
  • a visitor from somewhere else, or some comments about another community, that uses a different sign language, to show there is not one 'universal' sign language
  • signs that are not 'iconic', that you can't just guess what they are by looking.

There are some 'cultural' factors that you could include. These are just things that have struck me as being noteworthy at Deaf events.

  • sight lines are really important. Signers will move furniture, table decorations, etc. so that they can see each other better
  • similarly, good lighting is helpful
  • groups often sit in circles or horseshoes, so that everyone can see each other
  • people can sign privately, with their hands hidden from onlookers, even if someone is right next to them.
  • people can sign to someone across the room with the same effort as to someone sitting nearby
  • in a big group of Deaf people, they will be relatively quiet (not silent), but there are conversations, hands moving, everywhere.

You mentioned Auslan, so here is a resource: https://auslan.org.au/

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wonderful answer and exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. I'm addressing the lighting thing by making it a cultural norm to wear bio-luminescent bracelets that illuminate the hands for easier communication. Necessary as the group live mostly in a dark forest biome. You've given me a lot to think about in terms of how being a largely sign focused culture would impact things like architecture and room layouts. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Oct 11, 2022 at 21:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's not just hands people need to see. Facial expressions and movements are also really, really important (esp. eye movements). My Auslan teacher would always say to watch the face not the hands. Even body position is important. \$\endgroup\$
    – Evene
    Oct 12, 2022 at 11:28
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Treat it like another language, which is what it is.

This would be no different from the players interacting with any group that speaks an unknown language. What you need to rule is how this interacts with language spells like Tongues (probably works unless the group doesn't have ears) and Comprehend Languages (probably not since it specifies spoken languages).

You pantomiming a made up sign language is probably a bit much. That's the disrespectful part. And then what do you do when a player says "I want to spend 8 hours with a person of this group learning their language?"

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you actually tried to incorporate sign language into your games? Do you have experience with the hearing impaired to add into your answer as support? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Oct 6, 2022 at 14:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's what to do instead of pantomiming that I'm asking about. I'm not really concerned about the mechanics. Just treating it like a spoken language trivialises the fact that it is sign language. Making this bit of world-building less interesting reducing it to a factiod on in some player notes with no gameplay consequences and negates an opportunity to show proper representation of minorities at my table. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Oct 6, 2022 at 14:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @linksassin, I suggest that 98+% of people are not equipped to "show proper representation of minorities" at their table. People in the majority are generally sh!t at this no matter how well-intentioned. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tiger Guy
    Oct 6, 2022 at 18:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TigerGuy Does that mean we shouldn't try to get better at it? I'm certainly not perfect at it but by asking questions like this and making it a goal for my games, I'm certainly doing better than not trying at all. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Oct 8, 2022 at 1:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TigerGuy using sign language is not pretending to be disabled. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 9, 2022 at 2:48
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None of the other languages at your table are your and your group's native language, but you probably don't make a fuss of trying to talk in Elvish at the table.

You might as well do the same for your sign language. Discuss it and play out the various plusses and minuses that follow, but you needn't invent a new language for your players to learn and speak. It's play, after all. You need not actually talk Elvish (or a sign language) any more than you need to periodically actually kill things or eat unsanitary food and the like.

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