PhD theses on sign languages and signing communities in Africa

To date, less than a dozen PhD theses have been written about sign languages and signing communities of Africa. The WOCAL Committee for African Sign Languages encourages new scholars to present research in this field at our workshop, especially African deaf researchers studying their own languages. At present, only one Deaf African, Dr. Sam Lutalo-Kiingi, has written a linguistics doctoral thesis. If we have overlooked a thesis, please let us know:


  • 1997 • Constanze Schmaling • University of Hamburg • Maganar Hannu: Language of the hands. A descriptive analysis of Hausa Sign Language. (WorldCat)
  • 2007 • Victoria Nyst • University of Amsterdam • A descriptive analysis of Adamorobe Sign Language, Ghana. (PDF, 6.3MB)
  • 2010 • Philemon O. Akach • University of the Free State • Application of South African Sign Language (SASL) in a Bilingual-Bicultural Approach to Educating the Deaf. (PDF, 1.2MB
  • 2014 • Sam Lutalo-Kiingi • University of Central Lancashire • A descriptive grammar of morphosyntactic constructions in Ugandan Sign Language (UgSL). (PDF, 5.3MB)
  • 2015 • Annelies Kusters • University of Bristol • Deaf space in Adamorobe: An ethnographic study of a village in Ghana. (WorldCat)
  • 2016 • Tano Angoua Jean-Jacques • Leiden University • Etude d’une langue des signes émergente de Côte d’Ivoire: l’example de la langue des signes de Bouakako (LaSiBo). (PDF, 7.1MB)
  • 2017 • Hope E. Morgan • University of California San Diego • The Phonology of Kenyan Sign Language (Southwestern Dialect). (eScholarship [PDF, 161MB])
  • 2018 • Eyasu Hailu Tamene • Addis Ababa University • The Sociolinguistics of Ethiopian Sign Language: A Study of Language Use and Attitudes. (WorldCat)

1997 • Constanze Schmaling • Maganar Hannu: Language of the hands. A descriptive analysis of Hausa Sign Language. (WorldCat)

“This is the first comprehensive account of any West African sign language. Hausa Sign Language (HSL) is the language used by deaf people in the Hausa-speaking areas of northern Nigeria. This book introduces the reader to the deaf community in Kano State and presents a description and analysis of the phonology, morphology, and lexicon of HSL as used in this area. Documentation of sign languages such as HSL will help in testing and possibly modifying existing models of sign language structure. Constanze Schmaling studied African linguistics and phonetics at Hamburg University, Bayero University Kano, and the School of Oriental and African Studies London. She lived in the old city in Kano, northern Nigeria, for four years as a researcher and lecturer. Since 1997, she has been teaching and researching at the Institute of German Sign Language at Hamburg University.


2007 • Victoria Nyst • A descriptive analysis of Adamorobe Sign Language, Ghana. (PDF, 6.3MB)

“Adamorobe, a small Akan village in Ghana, has an unusually high incidence of hereditary deafness. As a result, a sign language came into being, Adamorobe Sign Language (AdASL), which is unrelated to any other sign language described so far and is assumed to be about 200 years old. The present study describes selected aspects of AdaSL, notably phonology, lexicon, the expression of size and shape and the encoding of motion events. A comparison of these aspects with descriptions of other sign languages reveals interesting crosslinguistic differences in the use of iconicity as well as in the use of space and classifier constructions. Data were collected during three periods of fieldwork of nine months in total. Moreover, this study considers to what extent the social setting may influence the development of structural features in sign languages. This investigation nuances the impact the visual spatial modality has on sign language structure. The book is of interest to scholars of sign linguistics, African linguistics, as well as contact linguistics and Deaf studies.”


2010 • Philemon O. Akach University of the Free State • Application of South African Sign Language (SASL) in a Bilingual-Bicultural Approach to Educating the Deaf. (PDF, 1.2MB)

Excerpts of abstract: “After contextualising the challenges of deaf education in the twenty-first century in the global context, this study focused on sign language in the environment of bilingual-bicultural education for the deaf in South Africa. Each of the five essays pinpointed particular challenges and as a result the study ventures to use empirical research to demonstrate conclusively that the issue of sign language in a bilingual-bicultural education for the deaf in South Africa, as is the case elsewhere, is a complex matter in which a motley intersection of dynamics is to be taken into consideration.” • “Fundamentally, the study indicates that sign languages in many polities in general, and in South Africa in particular, despite positive constitutional, legislative and policy developments, are subject to a particular challenges coined as “double linguistic imperialism”: sign languages are not only marginalised by the former colonial languages that have been adopted as official languages in many states in the developing world; they are also marginalised by the dominant indigenous languages in these societies. Language policy in general and educational policy and concomitant systems in particular are some of the mechanisms that can be deployed to redress this state of affairs.” • “In addressing the issue of sign languages acquisition and deaf education, the discussion establishes that the deaf child, in order to fully integrate into a predominantly hearing world, is faced with a particular challenge of adapting to an education system that provides for bilingual education. In such circumstances, sign language should ideally feature as first language, or mother tongue, as well as language of instruction. However, for purposes of reading and writing, the deaf child should also be exposed to a second, spoken language. This approach, the thesis argues, should lend emphasis on the so-called “critical period” in the child’s development.” • “Empirical research conducted and published here for the first time reveals that parents’ attitudes towards sign language as medium of instruction are as a rule at variance with particular situations, conditions and circumstances prevalent at any given time. However, the parents surveyed tend to agree that signed language should be used in instructing the Deaf child at school…Overall, from an attitudinal perspective, parents of deaf learners would prefer signed languages to be the languages of instruction for their children. By contrast, educators seemed to find themselves unable to distinguish between the use of SASL and alternatives in the classroom, calling all methods of communication ‘SASL’.” • “The conclusion is that teachers are in dire need of formal training in order to appreciate the true complexity of signed language and by extension therefore realise the current limitations in the education of the learners.” • “Policies setting out the requirement that the Deaf are taught through the medium of signed language have certainly not been heeded nor implemented on the continent of Africa.” • “The last paper in the study also establishes that sign languages, caught between negative societal perceptions, lethargic educational policies and an outdated pedagogy, suffer from a paucity of the development of instructional/learning materials. It is therefore important to recognise that there is need for materials development for sign languages so that they can become entrenched in the curriculum as taught subjects and in educational policy and practice as a media of instruction for Deaf learners.”


2014 • Sam Lutalo-Kiingi • University of Central Lancashire • A descriptive grammar of morphosyntactic constructions in Ugandan Sign Language (UgSL). (PDF, 5.3MB)

“The Ugandan Deaf Community, consisting of approximately 25,000 sign language users, has seen significant developments in its recent history. Government recognition of sign language, establishment of schools for the deaf, and the beginnings of research into Ugandan Sign Language (UgSL) have been important milestones. While Deaf Ugandans are entering university level education for the first time, a number of challenges to the community remain. The aim of this thesis is to investigate the linguistic structures of UgSL in order to produce a description of the language’s morphosyntax. There is a close relationship between word (or sign) properties and syntactic expressions, so UgSL is described here in terms of its morphosyntactic constructions, rather than a differentiation between morphological and syntactic features (cf. Croft 2001; Wilkinson 2013:260). While a substantial number of such descriptions exist for languages outside of Africa, this thesis is the first attempt at describing the morphosyntax of an African sign language. Many African sign languages are severely under-documented, and some are endangered. This study uses an inductive approach and a corpus-based methodology, examining how UgSL signers construct utterances of morphosyntactic complexity. The thesis is in three parts: part I is an introduction and overview of UgSL and also provides the theoretical and methodological background; part II provides a preliminary survey of UgSL grammar to provide a sider context for subsequent chapters; and part III is a detailed survey of five morphosyntactic domains of UgSL. The author is a native Deaf user of UgSL and a member of the Ugandan Deaf Community, as well as being fluent in several other sign languages and participating in international communities of Deaf people.”


2015 • Annelies Kusters • University of Bristol • Deaf space in Adamorobe: An ethnographic study of a village in Ghana. (WorldCat)

“Shared signing communities consist of a relatively high number of hereditarily deaf people living together with hearing people in relative isolation. In the United States, Martha’s Vineyard gained mythical fame as a paradise for deaf people where everyone signed up until the 19th century. That community disappeared when deaf people left the island, newcomers moved in, married locals, and changed the gene pool. These unique communities still exist, however, one being the Akan village in Ghana called Adamorobe. Annalies Kuster traveled to Adamorobe to conduct an ethnographic study of both the deaf and hearing populations in the village. In her new book, Kusters reveals how deaf people in Adamorobe did not live in a social paradise and how they created their own “Deaf Space” by seeking each other out to form a society of their own. Deaf Space in Adamorobe reveals considerable variation in shared signing communities regarding rates of sign language proficiency and use, deaf people’s marriage rates, deaf people’s participation in village economies and politics, and the role deaf education. Kusters describes spaces produced by both deaf and hearing people as cohesive communities where deaf and hearing people living together is an integral fact of their sociocultural environments. At the same time, Kusters identifies tension points between deaf and hearing perspectives and also between outside perspectives and discourses that originated within the community. Because of these differences and the relatively high number of deaf people in the community, Kusters concludes it is natural that they form deaf relationships within the shared space of the village community.”


2016 • Tano Angoua Jean-Jacques • Leiden University • Etude d’une langue des signes émergente de Côte d’Ivoire: l’example de la langue des signes de Bouakako (LaSiBo). (PDF, 7.1MB)

“Cette thèse fait la description de la Langue des Signes de Bouakako (LaSiBo), qui a émergée dans une communauté entendante. C’est une langue jeune, 48 ans environ, qui s’est construite par le contact entre les personnes sourdes ainsi qu’avec les membres de la communauté entendante pour les besoins de communications. Cette étude décrit des aspects de la LaSiBo à savoir les caractéristiques formelles et la variation interpersonnelle dans l’utilisation des signes; les domaines sémantiques tels que l’expression de la parenté, des couleurs, le système numéral et monétaire ainsi que l’expression du temps. La taille de la communauté, l’âge de la langue, l’influence de la langue parlée et l’absence de l’usage dans l’éducation sont autant de facteurs qui interviennent dans la formation de la LaSiBo. Les comparaisons systématiques des quatre domaines sémantiques ont été faites avec ceux de l’AdaSL décrit par Nyst (2007). Les résultats de ces comparaisons nous permettent de dire que l’âge peut affecter le développement des lexiques des langues des signes. Les similarités constatées des comparaisons faites de la LaSiBo avec d’autres langues des signes qui sont différentes les unes des autres peuvent résulter du fait qu’elles partagent une modalité de communication qui est visuo-gestuelle. De même, des similarités et différences ont également été observées entre des langues qui se côtoient (LaSiBo et Dida) mais qui ont différents canaux de réalisations, respectivement visuo-gestuel et audio-oral.”


2017 • Hope E. Morgan • University of California San Diego • The Phonology of Kenyan Sign Language (Southwestern Dialect). (eScholarship [PDF, 161MB])

“Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) is a thriving national sign language used by tens of thousands of signers in Kenya, and which emerged out of two deaf schools in western Kenya in the early 1960s. In this thesis, I provide a description and analysis of the basic phonological components of the KSL lexicon used in the southwestern region of Kenya (formerly south Nyanza Province). This phonological grammar of (SoNy)KSL makes contributions in three domains. In the descriptive domain, it provides a report of the basic units in the main phonological parameters; i.e., Handshape (Ch. 4), Location (Ch. 5), and Movement (Ch 6, 7), as well as the evidence for the distinctiveness of each unit. The description for Movement and Location are notable because those parameters have received less attention in sign linguistics in general compared to Handshape. In the methodological domain, the grammar is based on a KSL Lexical Database built for this project, in which over 50 phonetic characteristics of 1,880 non-compound signs were coded. This database is currently one of only a few such richly coded lexical databases of sign languages. In addition, this grammar employs a rigorous approach to determining lexical contrast, which has yielded a separate dataset of 461 minimal pairs (Ch. 3). This dataset reveals patterns of lexical contrast that were not previously known, and which have generated new hypotheses about how lexical contrast may be constrained by degrees of visual similarity. Finally, this thesis makes a theoretical contribution by comparing how different models of sign phonology can account for sign types in KSL. By evaluating the explanatory power of the main theories of sign phonology on the basis of specific descriptive data, this thesis gives new insights into the theoretical validity of these models. It also proposes modifications in some cases, especially with regard to how the Dependency Model (DPM) can account for the representation of movement features and their relationship to the timing tier. In addition, a new movement feature, [dispersed], is described and its implementation worked out in the DPM.”


2018 • Eyasu Hailu Tamene • Addis Ababa University • The Sociolinguistics of Ethiopian Sign Language: A Study of Language Use and Attitudes. (WorldCat)

“Ethiopian Sign Language (EthSL) emerged relatively recently; its development is closely tied to the establishment of the first school for deaf students in Addis Ababa by American missionaries in 1963. Today, EthSL is used by more than a million members of the Ethiopian Deaf community, but it remains an under-researched language. In this work, Eyasu Hailu Tamene presents a groundbreaking study of EthSL that touches on multiple aspects of Deaf people’s lives in Ethiopia.Tamene collects data from three principal groups of people: deaf participants, teachers of deaf students, and parents of deaf children. He examines EthSL use within families, in formal and informal settings, and in various community spaces. He documents the awareness among different groups of the services available for deaf people, such as sign language interpreters and Deaf associations. He finds that members of the Deaf community show positive attitudes toward the use of EthSL and investigates the factors that impact those attitudes. His work indicates that there are still critical gaps in recognition and support for the use of EthSL, which can pose a threat to the vitality of the language. The Sociolinguistics of Ethiopian Sign Languagewill help to advance public understanding of EthSL and contribute to improved educational and social outcomes for the Deaf community in Ethiopia.”