The history of sign language linguistics

Just like speech language, sign language has been around as far back as humanity existed. Sign language of the Deaf people around the world, unfortunately, had been wrongly perceived as a subpar language or even a set of "gestures". It had been shamed, condescended, and banned in deaf schools in the 1880s.

From 1880 to the 1960s, oralism had been the dominance in deaf education; sign language was prohibited in educational settings with the terribly disdainful attitude toward sign language in similar rhythm around the world. In America, ASL was regarded as a set of gestures or a "simplified" or "broken English". It was not considered a language of its own. Unsurprisingly, prior to the 1960s, the majority of people linguists dismissed any signed languages as language.

Then, everything changed in the early 1960s. Slowly at first.

Dr. William Stokoe, Jr.

William C. Stokoe, Jr. (1919-2000) is a renowned linguistics pioneer of American Sign Language (ASL) and is considered the "father of ASL linguistics" by the ASL community.

Gallaudet University (formerly Gallaudet College) hired William Stokoe as an English professor and chairman of the English department in 1955. At that time, he (who was hearing) had nearly no experience with Deaf people and their language (ASL). He was also adorably known for practicing Scottish bagpipes on campus where Deaf students wouldn't have to to hear him.

When joining the English faculty, he took a class to learn signs and fingerspelling only to realize later it was Signed English which was not the same as genuine ASL with its own grammar that Deaf students used. Signed English, an artificial language, was very slow and laborious. Over the time, Stokoe had learned so much about the language he observed the Deaf students on campus.

Signing speed
Credit: unknown

Within a year or two, Stokoe proposed his theories that ASL was indeed a true language of its own. In the beginning, not only he received little support, he also received harsh criticism as well as ridicule from his colleagues. Many people believed that signs were not analyzable, impossible to be studied. Despite these oppositions, Stokoe persevered; eventually, his works disproved them scientifically over the years.

In his analysis, Stokoe discovered the equivalent of phonemes (the units of language) and other linguistic features in sign language. Stokoe invented a written notation (now called Stokoe notation) for sign language. He coined the terms tab (tabula), dez (designator), and sig (signation), respectively meaning location, handshape, and movement. This notation system is usually accessible to linguists and academics. Today, there is a few ASL writing systems for everyday Deaf people, such as ASLwrite and si5s both developed by Deaf-led contributors.

"Language is not mouth stuff – it's brain stuff." – Dr. William Stokoe."

Despite all the audist odds against him and sign language over the decades, his work revolutionized the notion of language when Stokoe presented his groundbreaking paper Sign Language Structure in 1960 and also co-authored Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles with deaf collaborators Carl Cronenberg and Dorothy Casterline in 1965. He founded the journal Sign Language Studies in 1972. Linguistics in ASL became his life of work which persisted that ASL was a true, full-fledged language based on the linguistic criteria.

Stokoe retired from Gallaudet University in 1984. He received a honorary degree for his work in ASL linguistics from Gallaudet University in May 1988. He also received honorary doctorates from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and Madonna University in Michigan, U.S. He died of bone cancer in 2000.

Poetics in sign language

Since the 1970s, linguistics studies and research in sign language have been widely expanded. With the knowledge of linguistics, Valli Clayton (Deaf) studied poetic features in sign language in his doctorate dissertation in the 1970s. Valli analyzed alliteration, rhythms, and rhymes in sign language. Deaf people resisted poetry based on their experiences of the spoken language; hence, a separate signed word for 'poetry' was created. I.e. there are two signed words for poetry: one for spoken and another for signed. He helped pave the way of poetry in sign language. Today, Deaf people enjoy poetry, especially in our own (signed) languages.

Neuroscience linguistics

In the 1980s, hearing ally and neuroscientist Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto's studies debunk common assumptions and misconceptions about the nature of language by studying signed languages in the brain. The studies showed that signed languages activate the same linguistic regions of the left brain as found in spoken language. Her other works also include babbling, language acquisition milestones, natural pronoun reversal, etc. that show the same timeline of language acquistiion in signed language as found in spoken language.

"The human brain does not discriminate between the hands and the tongue. People discriminate, but not our biological human brain." -- Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto (Gallaudet Today, Spring 2012, p. 17)

Studies show evidence that language is amodal. In other word, speech is not central to language.

Today

Since the 1960s, there have been many notable Deaf and hearing linguists, scholars, neuroscientists, innovators, and others who have made significant contributions and discoveries in sign language studies and research. In parallel, like racism and sexism, audism continues to this day in this society. Changes take time.

Unlike the several generations ago, today we Deaf people in North America see ourselves as lingual-cultural entity. We take pride in our language, culture, and who we are.

"Without a legitimately recognized language, there is no culture; without a culture, there is no self identity; without self identity, you just go on trying to be what others demand you be." (circa 1988) -- Lou Fant (hearing coda, 1931-2001).

Resources

Maher, Jane and Oliver Sacks. Seeing in Sign: The Works of William Stokoe. 1996.

Lane, Harlan L. Recent Perspectives on American Sign Language. 1980.

Stokoe, William. Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech. 2001.

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