Plains Indian Sign Language


A language of United States

Alternate Names
Hand Talk, Indian Language of Signs, Indian Sign Language, NAISL, North American Indian Sign Language, PISL, PST, Plains Sign Language, Plains Sign Talk, Sign Talk

75 in United States (2015 M. McKay-Cody), all users. Total users in all countries: 75.


Scattered. Great Plains and neighboring regions, particularly on reservations of Apache, Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Crow, Hidatsa/Mandan, Kalispel, Kiowa, Kutenai, Lakota, Mandan, Navajo, Pawnee and Southern Tiwa tribes.

Language Status

8b (Nearly extinct). Formerly used as a lingua franca for inter-tribal contact among at least 40 different language groups by hearing and deaf people. In 1890, a private census reported 100,000 users (McKay-Cody 1996). Wide range of genres including story-telling, prayers, inter-tribal negotiation, and bartering (Davis 2010).


Plains Standard Indian Sign Language. Some variation by ethnic group and region, but dialect differences generally do not impede communication among different tribes. Many signs are associated with specific tribes (2016 M. McKay-Cody), but the degree to which the different tribal varieties represent separate languages has not been systematically assessed. Lexical similarity between available historical sources on PISL ranges from 80% to 92%. Comparison of these sources with American Sign Language [ase] shows 50% similarity (Davis 2010).


SOV; compounding (head-initial); verb agreement; classifier predicates.

Language Use

Used by deaf people with family and friends as a primary sign language, more elaborate than its use as a lingua franca (an ‘alternative sign language’) (McKay-Cody 1996). Elderly only. Those who use it are widely-scattered.. Also use American Sign Language [ase].

Language Development



Unwritten documents [Zxxx].

Other Comments

Sign language use by Native Americans is documented in many parts of North America, from the Arctic to Mexico, including the Northeastern, Southeastern, and Southwestern United States, and apparently predates European contact. Some of these varieties are recognized in ISO 639-3 as separate languages, others are clearly distinct languages but not yet with their own ISO codes (e.g. Keresan Pueblo Sign Language), while for others their relationship to PISL is not yet determined (and may never be, since some are extinct). The name ‘North American Indian Sign Language’ is used when this broader range of varieties is considered (McKay-Cody 1996, Davis 2010). Other names are used to refer to specific tribal varieties, many of which appear to be dialects of PISL.

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