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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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Signs could also be “arbitrary.” An arbitrary sign was “one that has no resemblance to the idea being conveyed.” Abstract words were by necessity signified by arbitrary signs. For example, when a signer wanted to sign size, he or she would position her palms facing each other about twelve inches apart, then open them roughly another four inches. Sometimes concrete words such as the metal lead, made by tapping the back of the hand against the chin, also had arbitrary signs.9

Sometimes arbitrary signs were attacked as “stupid abuse” of the manual method of education. When a teacher chose to sign roasted chestnuts with the sign roast used for a roasted animal (cranking a spit), the sign was not only arbitrary but it actually worked at cross purposes to the concrete. If an instructor wanted to sign burn up and if used burn “he signed as if plucking his hand from contact with a hot stove,” and for up the teacher signed the direction, students would not necessarily understand that the teacher meant consume. Most instructors argued that simply because arbitrary signs could be abused was no reason to dismiss all of them: “As well might a fork be pronounced a useless instrument, because some simpleton was detected eating soup with it.”10

Some teachers wanted to make an explicit link between signs and written English words. One way to remind students of the connection was to use an initialized sign. An initialized sign incorporated the handshape for the first letter of the sign’s English equivalent into the performance of the ASL sign. Instructors felt that such transformation of the sign would give “aid in giving distinctiveness and perspicuity to the idea: as C for color and W for weather.” Instructors were constantly trying to infuse ASL with the vocabulary of English and references to written English.11

Disagreement about the appropriate grammar for classroom sign language was more heated than discussions about proper signing of individual vocabulary. Teachers debated whether they should teach pupils to sign in the “natural” grammar of American Sign Language or whether pupils should use ASL vocabulary arranged in English word order.12

Kentucky principal J. A. Jacobs, despite his suggestion in some of his texts that American Sign Language be “dispensed with” in favor of written English, was an outspoken advocate of “methodical sign.” Methodical sign, as Jacobs wrote, referred to the “the natural signs of deaf mutes, extended, systematized, and conformed to the arrangement and idioms of written language.” Using the signed vocabulary of American Sign Language but following the order of written English, methodical sign, by Jacobs’s designation, would also include signs for grammatical symbols and even parts of speech. The application of English grammar to the vocabulary of American Sign Language—that is, “the use of a sign for every word”—was, according to Jacobs, “not only convenient, but necessary.” After all, the goal of education for Jacobs was to teach the Deaf students to put words “in their proper order—that is, in our [hearing people’s] order.” His goal was that of “inducing the mute to discontinue, by degrees, his powerful, picturesque, and impressive, but disconnected and unscientific pantomime.” If students were not taught to think in English word order, they would continue to express themselves in a language that Jacobs felt was “destitute of connection and logical principles, and grammatical inflections, concord and government.” American Sign Language’s effect on the learning of English was “mischievous.” If Deaf people continued to “retain and cherish their natural language,” they would be condemned to confusion and “logical poverty.”13

One hearing educator on a crusade to eradicate English-ordered sign language compared it to “teaching Latin and Greek by arranging the words in the order in which they would be translated into English.” To him, using the grammar of English in order to communicate in other languages was not only disrespectful to the other language but pure lunacy.14

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