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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Deaf History Reader

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Literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reveals that deaf life in the American colonies was varied and, for some individuals, fulfilling. Although the evidence does not provide detailed information about a core congregation of deaf people during that time, we have evidence of deaf individuals who achieved spiritual authority, religious participation, and legal rights. We see the planting of educational seeds, which came to fruition in the lives of early artists and in some deaf people who owned land and managed their own business interactions associated with trades. We also see the darker, disturbing elements at work in deaf people’s lives, as surely as they appear in mainstream history. At least a few deaf people were involved in superstitious acts, intolerance, the slave trade, and the disenfranchisement of native people. Deaf people cannot and should not be consigned to sainthood or victimhood in the colonial era or during any other period.

Many of the achievements noted in this study of the genesis of the American deaf community were nurtured in the acknowledged presence of a visual language or languages. We can only surmise how married deaf people like the Pratts in the Massachusetts colony or deaf siblings in other families in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries communicated, but it would not be a stretch of the imagination to assume that they did so by signs. Although the ship that Andrew Brown boarded did not disembark its passengers in New England, his story indicates that signing deaf people from Europe may have emigrated to the colonies before the Vineyard families. Some early use of gestural or tactile communication is also evident, including a case of an emigrant described by John Winthrop in 1637:

There was an old woman in Ipswich, who came out of England blind and deaf, yet her son could make her understand any thing, and know any man’s name, by her sense of feeling. He could write upon her hand some letters of the name and by other such motions would inform her. The governour himself had [trial of] when he was at Ipswich.69
In his seminal research on American Sign Language (ASL), William Stokoe questioned the assumption that Gallaudet and Clerc brought the French system of signs to the United States. His skepticism was based on the linguistic phenomenon of the “rapid flourishing of the language and the schools using the method.”70 Later, other scholars also explained that there must have been some influence on French signs from native signs already existing in the United States.71 The present paper indicates that decades before Clerc accompanied Gallaudet to Hartford to establish the American School for the Deaf, Americans such as John Adams, Francis Green, and William Thornton had visited Epée’s school for deaf students in Paris and shared their observations with both scholars and parents back home.

In discussing the history and bases of ASL in a more general context, James Woodward wrote that “it is not unreasonable to assume that whenever there have been deaf people associating with each other, there has been sign language variety. These varieties developed through normal patterns of interaction, not through the invention of hearing people.”72 Woodward provides arguments for possible earlier creolization in ASL based on the analysis of sociolinguistic situations in other locales. The anecdotal accounts in the present paper provide evidence that there were indeed numerous patterns of interaction, including, but not limited to, British signs and fingerspelling (Martha’s Vineyard and in other colonial sites), signs used by various Indian tribes, tactile communication with deaf-blind people (early 1600s), and various reports of what were likely home signs. Although it is presently not known whether any of these cases had French origins, the anecdotal reports support the contention that there was likely language contact among the sign language varieties. Additional research on sign language contact and sign language varieties in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will no doubt shed more light on the history of ASL.

The genesis of community presupposes the broad range of human experience. As the early colonists imagined free and full participation as citizens of a community, despite some notable failures, so, apparently, did their deaf neighbors. And these neighbors moved forward, albeit slowly, to express a distinct culture in the context of that new world.

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