Discovering the Secrets Behind Indigenous Hand Talkers
August 29, 2018 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Widely used before colonization, Indigenous sign languages likely formed much of what became American Sign Language.

“I have brought you from every direction to sit in this council. Young men are not learning your sign language, and soon it will disappear from this country,” he signals using Plain Indigenous Sign Language.
posted by poffin boffin (5 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I thought ASL was based on French Sign Language? That’s the normal explanation for how different it is from British sign language.
posted by w0mbat at 10:49 AM on August 29, 2018

I thought ASL was based on French Sign Language? That’s the normal explanation for how different it is from British sign language.

It's a language, and like every language, it draws on all kinds of sources and has evolved over time. It incorporated a lot of (old) French Sign Language (from which modern French Sign Language also evolved) because Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc learned it in Paris and used it to teach at the first American school for the deaf, intentionally not using British teaching as a model. But many of the students at the school -- mostly drawn from regional communities in the northeast -- had already learned their regional sign languages (most famously Martha's Vineyard Sign Language) and those sign languages (which are now extinct) helped form ASL, which (like any language) is still evolving and incorporating all sorts of sources.

I am totally unfamiliar with the specific history here, of indigenous sign languages (and on that note: THIS IS A NEAT POST, THANKS), but the history of sign languages in general is of regional sign languages evolving independently of each other and then gradually being supplanted by national sign languages (which in turn do sometimes incorporate parts of those regional languages). The specific claim being made isn't something I can evaluate, but it fits comfortably alongside the descent of ASL through old French Sign Language and doesn't reject or dispute that idea -- it's a claim that ASL drew from it, not it drew solely from it --
Davis’s research suggests ISL was so developed that it became the basis of at least half of American Sign Language, now the predominant sign language in North America. According to Davis, between 1847 and 1890, ISL descriptions were “widely distributed to educators and schools for the deaf through the journal American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb.”
(As an aside, there was an interesting AskMe earlier this week about the specific differences between ASL and BSL)
posted by cjelli at 11:31 AM on August 29, 2018 [9 favorites]

I had never heard of this, thank you for posting it!
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:40 PM on August 29, 2018

Now I really want to read that book "Hand Talk". Thanks for this!
posted by theatro at 12:51 PM on August 29, 2018

This is fascinating - many thanks!
posted by thatwhichfalls at 1:24 PM on August 29, 2018

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