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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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“Natural sign language” was not a pedagogical form of communication but rather the method of communication that Deaf people themselves routinely used when talking with each other. It was, according to advocates, “a language by itself, based upon nature, perfected by philosophy and art, tending toward greater beauty, force, scope, and perspicuity” than did constructed sign systems. Natural sign language, or to be more accurate, early American Sign Language, was for Deaf people “a substitute for oral language.” The signs were developed within the Deaf community rather than by hearing teachers. As one educator stated, natural sign was the “mother tongue” of Deaf people.15

While some educators saw natural sign language as “utterly devoid of law or system,” many hearing advocates for Deaf people recognized the complex grammar of ASL. Speech, stated one writer, was an artificial creation based upon human construction. Natural sign language was, he claimed, much more akin to art. Sculpture, like ASL, was a language “founded on natural principles.” So were the classical languages. Although hearing Americans assumed “from habit” that English grammar was “the most natural and expressive form of the language,” anyone with knowledge of other languages knew that other people expressed their ideas in a different order. The author gave an example to his readers: The English sentence “The Christian worships God,” would be written in Latin, “Christianus Deum adorat.” The phrase would be conveyed in American Sign Language following the Latin order. Like Latin, claimed the author, sign language was “in accordance with natural principles.” To follow the most natural sequence, “we must consider first the Christian, second the object, and last the act of worship. We do this because an analysis of the mental process by which a knowledge of the act is arrived at, will show us that the worshipper first attracts our attention and the object of the worship, and both occupy the mind antecedent to the act of worshipping.”16

Translating the sentence “I am going to Richmond tomorrow,” another advocate of Deaf education pointed out that the sentence would start with a tense marker: “The thumb (the fingers being closed) resting on the cheek, is passed upward and outward, with a slight curve, until the arm is extended”: tomorrow. Next, a perpendicular wave of an R handshape would represent Richmond. Finally, the signer would point to the signer’s own chest then the pointing fingers would revolve around each other toward where the shaken R was signed. “Thus we have, Tomorrow, Richmond I go.” Another ASL analyzer stated that the object of the sentence was always listed first in a sentence, just as “nature prompts”: “‘The woods I went, squirrels killed five’—‘Man saw I, horse fall from, and leg his broke.’” While an English speaker might say, “Yesterday a small boy caught a rabbit,” an ASL signer would order the sentence “Rabbit boy small caught yesterday.”17

To explain “the minor elements in a logical classification of a sentence,” such as adverbs and adjectives, one could expand the exemplary religious sentence: “‘The humble Christian devoutly worships the omnipotent God.’” In sign language, the adjectives and adverbs would in generally follow the noun or verb it modified. In other words, the “greater elements” of the sentence would be stated, and only following them, when the recipient already knew the topic, would the words be modified. One would sign “‘The Christian humble, God omnipotent, worships devoutly.’” As in the Richmond example, the signer probably located the nouns in the sign space in front of him or her, acknowledging the locations (essentially using them as pronouns) to make the order of action clear to the recipient. The linguistic use of space was perhaps the biggest difference between English-order pidgin sign and American Sign Language.18

Although the authors disagreed about the specific constructions that ASL required (all of which were likely valid), the authors recognized that applying English syntax to American Sign Language destroyed its linguistic integrity and made the pidgin sign difficult for non-English speakers to understand. They agreed that attempting to teach “the illogical unnatural hearing way” to Deaf pupils was “a task of immense labor” since even “the educated mute” continued to formulate thoughts in natural sign language.19

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