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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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From Pity to Pride: Growing Up Deaf in the Old South

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the pupils to stand or sit, or carry one of the concrete nouns they had learned earlier. The proposal was made because “this form of verb . . . represents the conceptions of the deaf mute’s mind more nearly than any other form of the verb.” Next would be the introduction of the present participle “because it is next removed from the imperative in its capacity to represent the suggestions of the pantomime language.” The real difficulties in teaching English verbs began to surface when pupils were introduced to verb tenses. American Sign Language sentences did, of course, have a sense of tense, but tense was expressed through the context and spacing of the sentence rather than through conjugated verbs. Deaf pupils, therefore, had no recourse to direct translation when they were learning English conjugation. Instead, teachers contrasted present and past, or present and future, verbs: “A boy has bought and is eating an apple” or “A boy is picking and will eat some berries.” Such examples may have helped the students grasp the English tense system but, as the author of the teaching guide admitted, “not however without great labor.”4

In addition to teaching students to write the English language, the teachers taught the manual alphabet. After the letter A was written on a slate, the teacher would then “place his hand in the position representing it” and the students were instructed to imitate the teacher. After the pupils had learned the signed alphabet, the class would begin fingerspelling the same short words they were learning to write. Soon, students would be able to fingerspell at roughly the same speed as they could read written English. Fingerspelling, since it mediated between ASL and English, was not usually as comfortable for Deaf people as was American Sign Language. Although they could generally sign at the same speed as their hearing counterparts could speak, fingerspelling was a slower process. Nevertheless, fingerspelling allowed schools for the Deaf to teach written English via a form of sign language in a visual classroom. The manual alphabet also allowed people to inject sign language with English words with no direct sign equivalent.5

Despite the fact that almost all instructors of Deaf people agreed that manual pedagogy was most effective, argument over which method was the best continued. A major debate raged during the nineteenth century about what kind of signed language should be used in the classroom. Because relatively few of the teachers in schools for the Deaf grew up knowing American Sign Language, teachers were often not fluent in the language and could not communicate all of what they wanted to say while using only the signs they knew. Their limited fluency was only part of the problem. Because ASL was not a codified language in the nineteenth century, it almost certainly varied widely from place to place. Because the pupils themselves rarely learned the language via familial transmission, very early ASL may have lacked some of the richness that languages acquire over time and across generations. Because of all these limitations, instructors often invented new signs and added them to the vocabulary of the classroom or school.6

One type of sign was what instructors called “significant.” A significant sign immediately conveyed what it represented: it “represents an idea so clearly that it needs no explanation.” In other words, clear gestures that could be understood by the rudimentary signer were considered significant. Signs such as hat, made with the palm patting the top of the head, were deemed significant. Although less obvious, the sign dance was also significant. It was made by shaking the inverted V of the first and second fingers over the palm of the other hand. Human beings performing an action were so frequently symbolized by the inverted V hand miming the action that even a new signer would have understood the majority of such signs. Many significant signs were part of the already established vocabulary of the Deaf community, and when instructors wished to add new vocabulary to ASL, they tried to create significant signs.7

Another class of vocabulary was made up of “conventional” signs. A conventional sign was “one that has been agreed upon, which has some resemblance to the idea to be conveyed” but which was not immediately understood if one had not been introduced to the sign. For example, the sign girl “would not be understood by even an educated deaf mute, if he had not seen it.” The sign was made by tracing the jawbone with the thumb, supposedly to indicate the ties of a bonnet. The sign woman was a compound sign, beginning with the sign girl but followed by holding the palm at the general height of women. After being told how the signs were derived, the Deaf person would “at once see the fitness.” A conventional sign was not a transparent gesture, but nevertheless the roots of the sign could be traced (accurately or not) to a concrete object. According to educators, this kind of signing was the most common in schools across the South.8


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