a language that you want for your child
February 6, 2020 9:12 AM   Subscribe

When we talk about the history of American sign languages, we often speak about Martha's Vinyard and about the French sign language speakers who helped build ASL. But indigenous peoples were using sign languages long before this, and theirs (developed to speak between nations) left its own imprint on what would become ASL. The language survived despite attempts to crush its use by both American and Canadian governments. Today, First Nations communities, especially Deaf indigenous people, are fighting to keep the language alive. posted by sciatrix (4 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
I really like the idea that the common language across North America used to be a sign language. I wonder how much it was used mostly to talk to to outsiders, and how much it was commonplace in daily life, as in enclaves with high incidences of deafness (e.g., Martha's Vineyard in the 19th century or many others). To have a mutually intelligible language across a whole continent is quite an impressive thing...
posted by puffyn at 1:54 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Wow, this is really interesting!

I love languages, and it saddens me tremendously to learn of a language dying out.

I get the impression from that last article that there were both widely-used Indian Sign Languages used between different communities, and more regional ISLs. I'm really curious about what we do still know about them, and I looked up Jeffrey Davis (the linguistics professor mentioned in the article) and found a review of his book Hand Talk; it looks like there was a companion website but that seems to have disappeared.

I would love to know more about how much overlap there was between the ISLs that were used over wide regions, and the more local ISLs, and how the representations of various words and ideas differed.

I'm glad to know that some people, like the Irelands, are urging the government to include ISLs in their initiatives and provide funding. I can't help but think that's a little easier in the internet age; the internet can make it so much easier for the relatively small number of people who are directly affected to find each other, and unite their voices.

I'm so glad to learn about this. Thanks so much for the great post, sciatrix!
posted by kristi at 2:37 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]

This is really interesting and I look forward to reading through these! As an American I'm thrilled whenever I've had the opportunity in the past to meet people who knew signed languages from other countries because it's fascinating to compare them. Though I'm hard of hearing, I only know a little ASL (took 3 semesters of it in college). I'm already a little bit familiar with some of the dialectical differences in ASL, but my lack of fluency means I only have a vague sense of what they are. I did not know about the signed languages of Indigenous people nor their influences on ASL, so I'm keen to learn about that. Thanks so much for this post!
posted by acidnova at 3:34 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

This is very cool. The links say the sign languages were used by both hearing and deaf people, which reminds me of the traditional role of sign languages in Australian First Peoples communities (the Yolngu example linked here is only one of many sign languages around Australia). Some of the circumstances in which they are used, according to the handbook article, are similar (ceremony, hunting), but it sounds like there are also some differences. The Australian signed languages are used by those in mourning, who do not speak aloud for a set period of time after a death. And as far as I know, they were/are not used as a lingua franca. The signs are too different for that, and most First Peoples groups were sufficiently multilingual to communicate with their neighbours in a variety of different spoken languages.

I've just been at a linguistics conference this week and was happy to see how many papers and projects there are now about sign as well as speech. And in an activity on the final day when we were asked to divide into small groups and list the five most important issues in linguistics today, most groups included "more attention paid to the multimodality of languages" in their top five. It's essential that documentation even of spoken language use video recording instead of just audio wherever possible, because language is so much more than just speech. (And in the case of sign languages like these ones used by hearing people, often people produce handsigns subtly during speech, to emphasise a word, or to add information, which a naive researcher wouldn't even notice, and it's information that is lost if the recording is audio only. I saw a recording once where the speaker, every time a person's name was mentioned, shaped their hand (lying on their lap) into the sign for the kinship relation that person was to them. This is a whole extra channel of information!).
posted by lollusc at 5:57 PM on February 6 [10 favorites]

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