Origins of NZSL
Historical evidence about the earliest use of NZSL is sketchy, but recent research shows that it is closely related to British Sign Language (BSL) and Australian Sign Language (Auslan). Apparently, BSL found its way to New Zealand with immigrants from the United Kingdom during the nineteenth century (Collins-Ahlgren 1989; Dugdale 2000), and it is likely that a distinct variety of NZSL began to develop among the pupils of the first residential school for the Deaf which opened in 1880 at Sumner, Christchurch. Two subsequent residential Deaf schools in Auckland and Feilding also brought together Deaf children from preschool through to highschool age, forming networks that developed into adult communities.
The first century of Deaf education policy in New Zealand (1880-1979) did not allow sign language in classrooms, and Deaf children received a strong message that signing was an improper way to communicate in public. Nevertheless, generations of Deaf children covertly used and created signs to communicate with each other within schools, and later in adult contexts. In 1979, Australasian Signed English was adopted as part of a Total Communication approach in Deaf education. Use of this sign system introduced many new signs (mainly from Auslan) into the NZSL community during the 1980s.
Research on natural signed languages and Deaf cultures began to positively impact the NZ Deaf community in the mid 1980s. From this time, the local sign language was researched, documented in dictionaries, and named as ‘NZSL’. In the decades since, Deaf New Zealanders have assumed a more positive sense of ownership of their language and asserted a Deaf cultural identity. NZSL was accepted for use in Deaf education from 1993. In 2006 it was legally recognised in the NZSL Act as an official language of New Zealand.
Is there a Māori sign language?
People often wonder, “Is there a Māori Sign Language?” To answer this question, it is important to understand that sign languages develop in communities of Deaf people who share the common experience of being excluded from the spoken language communities around them. Natural sign languages do not originate from, nor match, a spoken language – they have an independent structure and system of meaning based in the visual experience of Deaf people. NZSL is the common language that has developed over many generations of Deaf people from Māori, Pākeha and other ethnic backgrounds in New Zealand. There are signs in NZSL that express Māori cultural experience and referents, and this vocabulary is expanding as Maori Deaf people gain more access to Māori contexts through the use of NZSL. So, while some people refer to these concepts as “Māori signs”, there is no distinct “Māori Sign Language”. Spoken Te Reo Māori can be interpreted into NZSL (Te Reo Turi), and vice-versa – translating from the sense and structure of one language into the sense and structure of the other.
Variation in the lexicon
NZSL has some variation in the vocabulary used by different groups of people. The original schools for the Deaf enrolled the full spectrum of children: boys and girls, Pākehā (European) and Māori, and from a wide geographical area. As a result, most of the vocabulary in NZSL is common to all members of the Deaf community. However, there are marked differences in the vocabularies of older and younger signers, mainly due to the introduction of Australasian Signed English from 1979. Many signs used in this system quickly moved into wider circulation in the NZSL community, particularly among the generations educated after 1979. There are also some regional (north, central, south) differences in the signs that are favoured for certain concepts, but research has found few signs are completely unique to any one region.
Some social networks or groupings have sign vocabularies that they tend to use within their own particular contexts – such as Māori, church congregations, rugby players, teenagers, fishermen. The full extent of this type of specialised vocabulary is not yet fully captured in the dictionary.