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3:5 Wednesday, May 16, 2001

Signs of Things to Come

William Stokoe Turns to the Earliest Humans
to Investigate the Origin of Language

As recently as the 1950s, at a progressive institution like Gallaudet University, sign language was regarded as little more than a crude system of mimicry, and all classes were taught in English. William Stokoe, an English professor with no formal training in linguistics, changed all that. Stokoe recognized that his students communicated in a complete, sophisticated language all their own, launching a forty year campaign that not only achieved the legitmization of American Sign Language, but also proved a catalyst for the winning of equal rights for deaf people around the globe.

Stokoe Shortly before his death last year, Stokoe completed a study on the origin of human language that in many ways stands as a stunning, final chapter to his remarkable career: Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech. The accepted language-origin theory among many prominent linguists today is that humans possess a unique, independent language faculty, or sense, that manifests itself exclusively in speech. The earliest humans simply had this talent for speech; other species did not, and so our ancestors separated themselves from the pack. Stokoe disagrees. He postulates that “necessity and chance” led human ancestors to develop a gesture-based language, which over thousands of years evolved into the spoken languages we know today. Stokoe cites present day Native American and Native Australian communities, as well as human infants, as models: a system of gestures gradually assumes vocal accompaniments; the accompaniments usurp the gestures, becoming speech, and the speech is then complemented by gestural accompaniments: “gesture to language to speech.”

Beyond mere theory, Stokoe’s argument has profound implications for the sciences and for education today: “Once it is understood that vocal sound production can have no natural connection to nounlike and verblike concepts,” Stokoe writes, “let alone sentence meanings; once it is understood that every infant grasps and uses the natural connection of body movements to meanings on the way to acquiring language; once it is realized that our species emerged by going through the same stage of representing concepts visibly—only then will the falseness of the claims of oralism be seen. When not just specialists but those who vote for school boards, pay taxes, and serve in PTAs take in fully the arguments presented here, respect for the power of gestural representation could help many educational programs succeed, and not just those for deaf children.” Language in Hand is the crowing achievement of a triumphant crusade that began over forty years ago. Read Stokoe’s preface, and order Language in Hand at your exclusive subscriber discount rate of 20% off the regular price.

The History of Education Quarterly recognizes Mary Herring Wright’s Sounds Like Home: Growing Up Black and Deaf in the South as a seminal story of what it is like to grow up deaf in a hearing world in its Spring 2001 issue: “For historians of childhood and education, her biography is a primary as well as a secondary source on childhood and the education of deaf children in the South between the World Wars. It contains great information on schooling, family, and African-American culture and experience in particular.” Read the complete review and order Sounds Like Home.

Legal Rights: The Guide for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People earned the endorsement of Disability Studies Quarterly in its Winter 2001 issue: “Simply put: If you work in the disability field, buy this book. Do not think it is not for you if you do not work with deaf or hard of hearing people. The book could be a model of what to include in a disability rights book.” Read the complete review and order Legal Rights.

Volume 1: Issue 3 of Sign Language Studies, the ground breaking journal founded by William C. Stokoe and currently under the stewardship of David F. Armstrong (Original Signs), is now available for sale. Issue three includes an expose on supposed “miracle cures” for deafness in Mexico and a study on the search for passives in American Sign Language. Read the complete contents and abstracts of 1:3 and subscribe to Sign Language Studies today.


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