Press release, 28 october 2008

by Stephanie Vorwerk

Long-term project by the Academy of Sciences in Hamburg

In January 2009 a long-term project of the Academy of Sciences for the development of a corpus-based, electronic dictionary for German Sign Language (DGS) - German starts. The 15 year long project will be sponsored by the Academy with 8.5 million Euros and will be carried out at the Institute for German Sign Language and Communication of the Deaf at the University of Hamburg. It is a milestone in the research of DGS. The project will be supervised by Prof. Siegmund Prillwitz and Prof. Christian Rathmann.

The project connects two goals: First, the collection and analysis of sign language data in an annotated corpus and second, the development of an electronic dictionary DGS - German. The corpus contains a few hundred hours of video which will be recorded from about 250 Deafs allover Germany and afterwards systematically processed and analysed in a special database. This sign language corpus is comparable to large corpora of spoken languages. It will not only be the basis of a linguistically verified development of a DGS-dictionary. It also offers future possibilities for the empiric research of DGS with respect to its grammar, structure of meaning and usage. The dictionary will contain about 6000 entries. Due to the lexical structure of sign languages this corresponds to a multiple of entries in spoken language dictionaries. The selection of entries will rely on the actual usage of gestures by the way they are documented in the corpus. In this approach the sign language vocabulary can be captured and represented better than when coming from a german wordlist. The future electronic dictionary will present the signs as movies and will offer more differentiated access-, search- and display (e.g. search after a form of sign) options than a book.

The sign languages of the Deaf have developed in national and regional communities of Deaf as natural languages. The traditional education of the Deaf concentrated on spoken languages until the second half of the 20th century and devalued sign languages as simple non-language gesticulation. Also from a scientific point of view sign languages have not been considered an object of research. This deprecative attitude changed in Germany just about a decade ago. Today Deafs are accepted as members of a language minority and their sign language gets more and more usage in education, work and everyday life.

The corpus-based liguistic fundamental research of DGS is currently under development. But it is the precondition for the development of teaching and learning materials as well as substantiated usage of DGS especially in the field of teaching sign language in schools. In this connection the new project has an outstanding meaning.


For the speech community of sign language users the development of a DGS-dictionary has furthermore a high intangible value and contributes to the documentation as well as to the further acceptance of their language in the society. The speech community is involved in the development of the corpus right from the beginning and can take part in an internet-based review. A selected group of native signers from several regions in Germany is also involved in the analysis.

Target audience of the dictionary are learners native in german (e.g. parents and teachers of Deaf children), professional sign language interpreters, native Deaf DGS-users (Deaf adults, children of Deaf adults, Deaf children and children who learn DGS as first language), sign language teachers, linguists, and liguistic typologists. To cope with the different interests in usage of the different groups we plan to do a survey about the needs and wishes among the potential user group. As the dictionary is supposed to be used in different learning situations as well as translation contexts it is bilingual and offers access to the content in both languages, DGS and German. The project will be carried out in close international cooperation with leading institutes for sign language research especially in Europe, the USA and Australia.

The Academy of Sciences in Hamburg

The Academy of Sciences in Hamburg, found in 2004, has outstanding scientific members from all fields from allover Northern Germany. As a working academy it will contribute to intensify the cooperation of different fields, academies and other scietific institutions. It supports research on socially meaningful issues of the future and scientific fundamental research. As a special task it wants to encourage the dialogue between science and public. As a public corporation the Academy is financed by the free and hanseatic city of Hamburg. The Academy of Sciences is a member of the academy union that coordinates the academy programme which is financed by the federal government and the federal states (Länder). This project is financed by funds of the academy programme.

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