A {text-decoration: none} a:hover{color:#000033; background-color: yellow}

 ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library

International Sign Language:  Gestuno

Travis Rolan Jones
November 12, 2001


The need to communicate is universal. For those within the deaf community, the need to communicate in sign is universal. Just as there are languages in the world, there are thousands upon thousands of different signed languages, each with its own "accent" and "dialect." Every different sign language is a reflection of its past, the culture in which it expanded, and the mores of its society (Grunberg 1). So what do you do when you try to gather together people of the deaf communities from all four corners of the globe? You devise an international sign language that all are capable of learning and understanding.

As early as 1951, at a gathering of the World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf, the idea of "unifying" the sign languages was being discussed (handspeak.com). They realized that having hundreds of interpreters at every event just wasn't feasible. So around 1973 a committee was given the task to devise and standardize a system of international gestures. The Commission on Unification of Signs of the World Federation of the deaf then issued a book of almost 1500 signs, chosen or invented by them and they called the new basic international vocabulary "Gestuno." The name is Italian and roughly translated means "oneness of sign languages" (Moody 1)

Within the World Federation of the Deaf, their official languages, English and French, are still used for documentation and correspondence. Yet in general assemblies and within the bureau, Gestuno is still used. It is still not known though, if everyone fully understands the language. Inside the bureau, Gestuno is far more defined. Members with a broad cultural understanding have been able to communicate many concrete principles as well as abstract ideas. Gestuno is still used at the World Games for the Deaf and at the DEAF WAY Conference and Festival in Washington, D.C., but other than that, its use is very limited (Grunberg 2). 

Like "Esperante," the idea of unifying sign language hasn't been as prolific as the Commission first intended. There just are not that many people that have been willing to learn the new language. And with the highly developed translating devices of today and the skilled hands of international translators, who would really want to take the time to learn a language no one else knows (Moody 81)?

Within the last few years in Europe, a lingua franca has developed. A sort of "creole sign language" that some have begun calling an international sign language. Whether it will ever catch on or not is unknown but is something to watch (deaflibrary.org). 

A native language Gestuno is not. But it is a barrier breaking vocabulary that allows a select few to bridge an international language gap. It is still used today in specific gatherings for the deaf community where needed, yet these events are few in number. Yet the need to bridge that international barrier has aroused a sort of lingua franca rooted deep in the trade industry of modern Europe. Maybe this next generation of signers will develop this language further and international communication will be easier (deaflibrary.org). As for the Gestuno thing, they said Esperante would work too.

Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness. Vol 3. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill
Company, Inc. 1987. pgs. 344-346.

Grunberg, Karen. (June 03, 2001). For Hearing People Only. Kenika. Retrieved 5, Nov. 2001:

International Sign. www.handspeak.com. Retrieved 8, Oct. 2001:

"International" Sign Language? Deaf Library. About ASL. Retrieved 5, Nov. 2001: 

Moody, B. Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness. Vol 1. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill Company, Inc. 1987. pgs. 81-82.


Bill:  International sign has been carefully developed to be non-offensive in its gestures but doesn't really qualify as a Language but rather a communication system.

Student: Are any of the signs the same?

Bill: Many of the signs are the same but shapes like "F" and T are modified so you don't offend someone.

Student: In what way?

Bill: Well think about some of the Latin countries that use an "F" handshape with the index finger touching the tip of the thumb as an offensive gesture. It is the equivalent of the birdie (flipping someone off) in America. So letters like "F" and "T" are changed to more universally appropriate shapes.

Bill: Gestuno is sort of like the signed version of Esperanto.

Bill: A number of years ago a group called the World Federation of the Deaf tried to achieve what Margaret Mead suggested. (She was an anthropologist) She said that signing could become the language used internationally by people throughout the world.

Bill: So this committee, over a period of several years, came up with about 1600 signs.
They voted on what they thought would best represent each of the concepts. It is important to realize here that Gestuno is NOT a language in the sense that ASL is a language. Gestuno doesn't have any well established rules for which order to put the signs in.  (However I reckon as time goes on that might change.)

Suppose I speak ASL. I would tend to use Gestuno in an ASL grammatical style. Someone from another country would use their own grammar with the Gestuno signs (lexicon).
[Note from Bill]: The term Gestuno seems to be almost extinct. Most people now just call it "international signing."


Dr. Bill's new iPhone "Fingerspelling Practice" app is now available!   GET IT HERE!  

NEW!  Online "ASL Training Center!"  (Premium Subscription Version of ASLU)  ** CHECK IT OUT **

Also available: "ASLUniversity.com" (a mirror of Lifeprint.com less traffic, fast access)  ** VISIT NOW **

Want to help support Lifeprint / ASLU?  It's easy!