A True Pioneer...

"He Cracked American Sign Language"

"I first met Bill Stokoe in December of 1986. I was nervous about meeting him: he was the man who had cracked American Sign Language (intellectually equivalent to cracking the Rosetta Stone, and emotionally, morally, infinitely more difficult because no one, least of all the deaf, thought of Sign as a real language until he did this).... What I found was a man immensely humble, a man who felt he had been given far more than he had received, and he was immensely generous.
-- From the Foreword by Oliver Sacks

"The Father of Linguistics in the Field of American Sign Language"

Bill Stokoe is the father of linguistics in the field of American Sign Language. If it weren't for him, we'd still be in the Dark Ages.
--Gil Eastman, Former Host of "Deaf Mosaic"

"The Deaf President Now Protest Had Its First Link Forged by Bill"

Bill made the first crack in the dam that eventually erupted into the flood that we call deaf empowerment. 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. Without the concept of deaf culture and the identity that goes with it, there would have been no Deaf President Now (DPN). The chain of events that led to the DPN protest had its first link forged by none other than Bill... it's the crowning achievement of his work.
--Lou Fant, Actor, Writer, Interpreter

Through the 1950s, most educators at Gallaudet College condescendingly considered the signs used by deaf students among themselves as a poor substitute for speech. This all changed, however, starting in 1955 when William C. Stokoe arrived at Gallaudet College (later Gallaudet University) to teach English, specifically Chaucer. For when he was first exposed to deaf people signing, his own education in Old and Middle English triggered a disparate response within him. While most of his colleagues conformed to current conventional theory and dismissed signing as mere mimicry of speech, Stokoe saw something startling, something different; he saw in signing the elements of language.

Seeing Language in Sign traces the process that Stokoe followed to prove scientifically and unequivocally that American Sign Language (ASL) meets the full criteria of linguistics phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and use of language to be classified a fully developed language. This perceptive account dramatically captures the struggle Stokoe faced in persuading the establishment of the truth of his discovery. Without a specific linguistics background, his observations were met with amusement in some quarters and outright scorn in others by hearing and deaf authorities alike.

Seeing Language in Sign rewards the reader with a rich portrayal of an undaunted advocate who, like a latter-day Galileo, pursued his vision doggedly regardless of relentless antagonism. He established the Linguistics Research Laboratory, then founded the journal Sign Language Studies to sustain an unpopular dialogue until the tide changed.

Amazingly, his success in completely reversing the reigning critical assessment of sign by proving that it was a true language, also revolutionized the governing theories of all language research. Stokoe's total commitment without interest in self-aggrandizement enabled him to persevere through the years. His inspiring efforts described vividly in these pages launched new waves of thought on linguistics in general and also instilled in deaf people everywhere in this country pride in their newly recognized, native language. His ultimate vindication corresponded with the recognition of the glorious culture and community that revolves around Deaf people and their language, American Sign Language.

Jane Maher is Assistant Professor in the Basic Education Program at Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York.

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