Evolution of Auslan


Anne Bremner is a lecturer with the National Institute for Deaf Studies and Sign Language Research at La Trobe University.

The mode of communication in Deaf education in schools between the1860s and 1870s was bilingualism through their first language (signing).

The 1880s saw the commencement of oral communication and in 1893, the Combined Method was introduced. In the early days around the 1930s and possibly earlier, ‘fingerspelling-only’ was very important in schools and this was known as the Rochester Method. This happened mainly when communicating with hearing people. Deaf people had signs at that time that are still in use nowadays. In the 1950s, the mode of communication included 1) Pure Oralism, 2) Combined-Oralism dominant, 3) Integration. Signed English, Total Communication and Cued speech soon followed.

Auslan is a relatively new term coined by Trevor Johnston (author of the Auslan Dictionary which was first published in 1989. In the old days, Auslan was often referred to as ‘Deaf Signing’ or later, Australian Deaf Sign Language. Auslan became recognised as a community language in 1991. The Federal Government stated the following in its National languages policy:

“It is now increasingly recognised that signing deaf people constitute a group like any other non-English speaking language group in Australia, with a distinct sub-culture recognised by shared history, social life and sense of identity, united and symbolised by fluency in Auslan, the principal means of communication within the Australian deaf community. Auslan is an indigenous Australian language.”

(Commonwealth of Australia 1991, 20)

I wish to emphasise here that Auslan is recognised as a community language only. It was not until the early 1990s that deaf people began to take control of their own language and it is now recognised that in sign languages of the Deaf, these are fully legitimate human languages. We have sign language dictionaries and sign linguists (people who study sign languages) who first conducted research into the basic concepts sign language structure covering fundamental areas such as phonology, morphology, syntax and the use of language. Phonologically, Auslan has five parameters namely: Handshape,Orientation, Location, Movement and Expression (HOLME).

Handshape has 38 major handshapes with 28 variants which brings it to the total of 66 handshapes in all. (Trevor Johnston, 1998).

Orientation refers to the direction of the palm and fingers and where it faces e.g. WEIGH/BALANCE. Location involves signs connected to the body area e.g.

- Head


- Stomach


- Heart


Location may also involve two different places in the one sign eg. DEAF (the first location is on the side of the face near the ear and the second location is on the chin).  

Movement is found in all Auslan signs. There are different kinds of movements and they can either be big (macro) such as the sign for BIG or small (micro) as seen in the sign for LITTLE. In some signs the orientation of the hands may change such as: CHANGED-MY-MIND, PRESENTATION. Some signs may have one movement at the beginning and repeated movements at the end eg. HEARING, MEMORIAL.

The movement in the sign for ‘AUSLAN’ here in Melbourne involves twisting at the wrists and there is no movement in the fingers. However, the sign for Auslan used by our northern counterparts involves movement in the fingers and arms.

Movement is also found in the fingers eg. SALT, TWO-MORE, WORM, etc. Movements can be repeated once or several times, eg. LATER and AFTER

AFTER [lunch] = one movement

[see you] AFTER = repeated movements

LATER [on] = one movement

LATER [as in AFTER] = repeated movements

Movement also can change the meaning of a sign eg. RAIN and DOWNPOUR. This would also include the use of non manual features, stress and speed.

In noun-verb pairs, movement shows which sign is the noun and which sign is the verb, eg. the noun KEY uses repeated movements and the related verb LOCK uses one movement. Another example is the noun WINDOW (repeated movements) and the related verb OPEN-WINDOW (one movement).

It should be noted here that English-ed mouth patterns should not be used for many verbs, however, it is sometimes mouthed when using nouns.

Expression includes non manual features such as facial expression and movements of the head, shoulders and body, eg.

  • Eye gaze, direction and how you move your eyes, eg. FAR (narrowed eyes), SOON (eyes widen). Other examples are LOOK and STARE.
  • Lip patterns, eg:

Grimacing  = JUST-RECENTLY

Pouting = LOST

Pursing = REVENGE


rounding the lips = OH-I-SEE

sucking in  air = VACCUUM

blowing out air = BREATHE-A-SIGH-OF-RELIEF

poking out tongue = EXAGGERATE

  • Mouth movements: signs that uses specific mouth movements, eg.

STRANGE (buh-buh)

FINISH (fsh)


  • Facial expression can be used as a grammatical marker eg. MAN THERE WHO?

As previously stated, signs are made up of five parameters: Handshape, Orientation, Location, Movement and Expression. Minimal pairs are pairs of signs that have the same parameters except one, eg:

DUCK/BIRD share the same location, movement, orientation and expression but use different handshapes;

IN/UNDER share the same handshape, location, movement and expression but use different orientations;

YELLOW/WHITE share the same handshape, orientation, movement and expression but use different locations;

NOW/ADDITIONAL share the same handshape, orientation, location and expression but use different movement;

CHEAT/SLY share the same handshape, orientation, location and movement but use different expressions;


References:  Signs of Australia: A New Dictionary of Auslan by Trevor Johnson

                        The Structure and Formation of Signs in Auslan by Adam Schembri

                        The Linguistics of British Sign Language: An Introduction by Rachel Sutton-Spence and Bencie Woll

Anne Bremner is a lecturer with the National Institute for Deaf Studies and Sign Language Research at La Trobe University.


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