Martha's Vineyard Island and Sign Language

Imagine a world where a difference between deaf and hearing is not as much of a big deal as between brown-eyed and blue-eyed or between left-handed and right-handed people. Here comes to Martha's Vineyard Island a few hundreds years ago!

Martha's Vineyard, an island five miles off the southeastern shore of Massachusetts in the U.S., is notable for its history of the majority of sign language users peaked in the 19th century.

The population on the Martha's Vineyard island in the 18th century had a high rate of deaf heredity. The birth rate for deaf children ws 1 in 155 on the island. In the city, there was the highest concentration of deaf people, 1 in 4 in the Chilmark town.

Most of the deaf inhabitants on the island may be traced their ancestry back to a small region in southern England, known as the Weald in the county of Kent. Some Kentish Weald families emigrated from there to Massachusetts. The first deaf settler and his hearing wife moved to the island in the late 17th century. An incidence of genetic deafness had spread. The inhabitants, both deaf and hearing islanders, developed an indigenous signed language, called Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL).

As nearly every inhabitant regardless of deaf or hearing, spoke MVSL, deafness was not a concern. Sometimes, hearing inhabitants talked to each other in sign language even without deaf people present or switched from speaking to signing. Everyone was equal in all affairs of life, including town meetings where all inhabitants signed.

Interestingly, when researchers asked the last residents on the island who was deaf and who was not, many couldn't remember.

As the first school for the deaf was founded in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817, many deaf students from the island attended this school. Their language was intermingled with Old French Sign Language, which was brought by the French deaf teacher, Laurent Clerc, from France. Eventually, these island inhabitants settled down on the mainland. A number of signers on the island eventually declined till the mid-20th century. In the meanwhile, tourism and its economy grew on the island. The last deaf person born on the island died in the early 1950s.