Deaf: Cultures and Communication, 1600 to the Present

Sign Languages

Today, one of the defining features of Deaf cultural identity is sign language. Sign languages tend to develop naturally among Deaf people in contact, often in residential schools for the Deaf. One of the most famous American examples is Martha’s Vineyard Sign, used from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. The island’s isolated population had a high incidence of deafness, and the locals developed a form of sign language to communicate easily and without stigma. Many children from Martha’s Vineyard attended the School for the Deaf in Hartford, and their sign language mixed with other local systems and French Sign to become American Sign Language (ASL). 

Deaf sign languages are fully developed languages, with their own rich syntaxes, grammars, and lexicons. Hundreds of these languages are used as first languages by more than 70 million Deaf people around the world, as well as many hearing people. Some countries, such as New Zealand, have even recognized sign languages as official languages. Efforts have been made to create an international sign language, which is used at events like the Deaflympics or meetings of the World Federation of the Deaf, but International Sign (an early version was called Gestuno) is not a complete language.

Semiotics and Human Sign Languages

William Stokoe, a professor at Gallaudet University, was one of the first scholars to demonstrate that ASL was a fully developed language, and he brought the name “American Sign Language” into official use. In 1960 he developed the Stokoe Notation System to represent and analyze the language on paper. This complex system uses different symbols to refer to the sign’s “tab” (“tabula,” or location), “dez” (“designator,” or handshape and orientation), and “sig” (“signifier,” or motion or action).

Like most systems for phonological transcription, the Stokoe system does not fully capture the complexity of the language, omitting information about speed, tenseness, and facial expression, for example, which are all substantial elements of ASL communication. Though Stokoe was a pioneer in his field, his notation system has many rivals that aim for greater ease or precision. 

The story of Goldilocks in Stokoe Notation and other transcription systems.

The Chinese Signs: Lexicon of the Standard Sign Language for the Deaf in China

The first school for deaf children in China was founded in Dengzhou in 1887 by Annetta Thompson Mills, the wife of a missionary. In the 1950s, China consolidated all of its Deaf schools under government administration and resolved to standardize Chinese Sign Language. In consultation with the Deaf community and hearing teachers, the government collected signs from across the country and published China’s first book of “Standard Signs for the Deaf” in the early 1960s. Although work on Chinese Sign Language was suspended during the Cultural Revolution, the book on display here, printed in Hong Kong in 1977, continued the effort to publicize standardized signs, in this case organized in English alphabetical order and betraying Cold War concerns such as satellites and secret alliances.

Diccionario de lengua de signos española

Contrary to popular belief, “sign language” is not a single, universal language mutually intelligible by all Deaf people across the globe, and the linguistic boundaries of signing communities do not directly correlate to spoken languages. For example, while Spanish is an official spoken language in Spain, Mexico, and most Central and South American countries, Spanish Sign Language is used only in Spain. Deaf people in other Spanish-speaking nations have their own sign languages, and Spanish Sign Language is just one of several languages used by Deaf Spaniards; Catalan and Valencian Sign Languages are linguistically distinct from Madrid-based Spanish Sign Language.

The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary

When non-deaf people hear a word they don’t know, they can look it up phonetically in a standard dictionary. But what can ASL students do when they encounter an unfamiliar sign? This dictionary organizes signs by their handshapes and includes their English equivalents. Here we see various signs that are performed with the 3-handshape (a fist with the thumb, pointer, and middle fingers extended and spread), including insect and receptive.

Search an online handshape dictionary