Project: On-line NZ Sign Language Dictionary

NZ Sign Language is the language of the Deaf community in New Zealand. Like other Sign Languages around the world, it is a full language with its own vocabulary and grammatical structure - it isn't a signed version of English and it isn't just a collection of gestures. Like other Sign Languages, it is not a written language, partly because it is hard to write down a language in which the words and sentences involve simultaneous movements of parts of the body in three dimensions. Another reason is that it is only in the past three decades that NZ Sign Language has been recognised as a real, natural, human language.

NZ Sign Language is distinct from other sign languages used in other countries around the world, though it is closely related to AusLan (Australian Sign Language) and is descended from British Sign Language.

The university (Deaf Studies Research Unit in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies) and the Deaf Association of NZ produced a dictionary of NZ Sign Language. In some ways, the dictionary is an ordinary bilingual dictionary - translating between English words and NZSL signs. However, because NZSL is not a written language, the dictionary has some interesting features:

  • The NZSL entries involve images - drawings of each sign.
  • The ordering of signs has to be based on properties of the sign, not on an alphabetic ordering.
  • The English to NZSL section is a little awkward to use - the images take too much space to be able to repeat them in both the NZSL to English and the English to NZSL sections, so the English to NZSL section is really an index with page references back to entries in the NZSL to English section.
  • The need for images means that the physical book is large.

I currently have a prototype electronic version of the dictionary, implemented in html and javascript that could be run standalone with a browser and a CD (no server required) or run over the web. It is just a prototype, and has many limitations. However, one of its nice features is the ability to create worksheets with your own selection of signs to assist in learning the language.

The DSRU is currently creating a much better online dictionary for NZSL which will incorporate video. It is scheduled for release in 2011.