Historically, has there ever been a "Latin Sign Language"? Perhaps the Romans developed one, or maybe the Catholic Church did so at some point? Perhaps suggesting "no," Wikipedia's list doesn't seem to include one.

By "Latin Sign Language," I'm thinking of a sign language influenced by Latin, maybe in its vocabulary or syntax. Perhaps, but not necessarily, a language developed by Latin speakers for communication with the deaf or mute.

Here I'm interested in a historical sign language, not something recently developed as part of the contemporary Latin movement. So let's restrict ourselves to examples from the 19th century or earlier.

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    The Catholic Church used sign language almost exclusively in her monastic institutions, notably in the Benedictine and Trappist monasteries and was adopted to local traditions and languages. Watch Thomas Merton’s Sense of Humor and the Use of Trappist Sign Language on YouTube
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 2:02
  • @KenGraham That's extremely interesting... so I guess the question there is, were they all based on local languages? Seems like Latin would have been a good candidate for one... Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 2:07
  • The more intellectual houses of formation would certainly be based on Latin, especially the ones in which Latin was used as the spoken language within the cloister. .
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 2:13

1 Answer 1


This is a fascinating question which taught me several new things about Roman culture!

The extent to which we can answer this question affirmatively depends heavily on how we define "sign language." I will divide my answer into three levels. I will exclude, as an obvious first level, the universal human ability to communicate via bodily attitudes, such as hand gestures.

  1. Signs that indicate specific meaning (dactylonomy): Yes, the Romans had a well-known and attested numbering system involving the hands.

  2. Signs that indicate letters (dactylology): Yes, certain classical authors seem to refer to this and Bede offers a comprehensive description of how to do this.

  3. Signs that indicate words: I am not aware of a described system for this.

I will use many quotes from this article on antiquitatem.com for my answer. I recommend reading the whole article if you want to learn more.

Manual system for numbers

The Romans had a specific set of finger signs they used to count and calculate numbers. The system was much more refined than simply finger counting, which restricts one to 10): 1-9, 10-90 had specific representations on the left hand. 100-900, 1000-9000 had representations on the right. Combinations of these symbols (in succession, of course) could be used to represent numbers up to a million.

Juvenal uses this fact to explain how Nestor is more than a century years old:

Rex Pylius, magno si quicquam credis Homero, exemplum uitae fuit a cornice secundae. felix nimirum, qui tot per saecula mortem distulit atque suos iam dextra conputat annos, quique nouum totiens mustum bibit. (Juvenal, Sat X, 246 251)

Numerous other testimonies of this exist, from classical and Christian writers. The Venerable Bede (7th century) offers a comprehensive overview of this system in his De Computo vel Loquela Digitorum, which is really fascinating to read. As an example, here is his description of how to form "10" and "20" (on the left hand):

Quum dicis Decem, unguem indicis in medio figes artu pollicis. Quum dicis Viginti, summitatem pollicis inter medios indicis et impudici artus imittes.... (pg. 142)

Manual system for letters

This too is referred to (albeit less explicitly) in Roman times. Here is an example from Ovid:

Nihil opus est digitis, per quos arcana loquaris (Ovid, Ars amatoria, I, 137)

After describing numerical counting, Bede (op. cit.) describes how this same system can be used to spell words by individually indicating each letter's position in the alphabet:

Potest autem et de ipso quem praenotavi computo quaedam manualis loquela, tam ingenii exercendi, quam ludi agendi gratia figurari: qua literis quis singillatim expressis verba, quae iisdem literis contineantur, alteri qui hanc quoque noverit industriam...legenda atque intelligenda contradat.... (pg. 143)

It is perhaps significant to the spirit of this question that he sees this system as an "exercise of ingenuity" or a "game": this system is not well suited to communicating ideas efficiently.

He gives the following example:

Verbi gratia: Si amicum inter insidiatores positum, ut caute rem agat, admonere desideras: III, et I, et XX, et XIX, et V, et I, et VII, et V, digitis ostende. Hujus namque ordinis literae, Caute age, significant. (pg. 144)

He also indicates that this system is even easier with Greek letters, since by convention each Greek letter already has a numerical value.

As for a functional sign language, in the fullest sense, I cannot find any attestations.

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