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American Annals of the Deaf

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The Study of Signed Languages: Essays in Honor of William C. Stokoe

David F. Armstrong,
Michael A. Karchmer, and
John Vickrey Van Cleve, Editors


William C. Stokoe and the Study of Signed Languages

David F. Armstrong and Michael A. Karchmer

The right man in the right place at the right time.

This volume celebrates the work of William C. Stokoe, one of the most influential language scholars of the twentieth century. In order to understand his impact on both the educational fortunes of deaf people and on the science of language, it is necessary to consider briefly the status of these two related fields in the early 1950s. The almost universal educational goal for deaf people at this time was acquisition of spoken language and the ability to discern speech on the lips—other educational goals, including the acquisition of general knowledge, were arguably secondary to the development of “oral” skills. It was perhaps not coincidental that linguistic science had no interest in the gestural language of deaf people—language was synonymous with speech. This point is well captured in the title of one of the most influential books on linguistics of the first half of the twentieth century, Edward Sapir’s Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. Sapir, writing in the 1920s, dismissed sign languages as substitution codes for spoken languages—speech was dominant (Sapir 1921: 21). The views of “experts” on deaf education in the mid-50s may be best summed up by Helmer Myklebust, a product of Gallaudet’s graduate school.
The manual language used by the deaf is an ideographic language . . . it is more pictorial, less symbolic. . . . Ideographic language systems, in comparison with verbal systems, lack precision, subtlety, and flexibility. It is likely that Man cannot achieve his ultimate potential through an Ideographic language. . . .The manual sign language must be viewed as inferior to the verbal as a language. (Myklebust 1957: 241–42).
It’s all here in this short passage: sign language is equated with the despised, non-alphabetic writing system of a non-Western people (the Chinese), it is said to lack the precision of speech, and it is stated, without any evidence, that deaf people will not achieve their full potential through its use. When Stokoe arrived at Gallaudet in 1955, he was entering an environment that was dominated by thinking like this. His achievements with respect to the value of signed languages were essentially fourfold. Stokoe’s first achievement was to realize that the signed language his students used among themselves had all the important characteristics common to spoken languages and that it had the same potential for human communication. His second achievement was to devise a descriptive system that would convince language scholars of these facts. This was what gave him the legitimacy to pursue his third achievement—convincing much of the general public and the educational establishment of the human and educational value of allowing deaf children to communicate in natural signed languages. His fourth grand achievement was then to apply what he had learned from the study of signed languages to the larger problems of the nature and evolution of the human capacity for language.

In his introduction to this volume, I. King Jordan refers to Stokoe as being in the right place at the right time, and we will elaborate on that theme here. Before he arrived at Gallaudet, Stokoe, of course, had had little experience communicating with deaf people and no professional training in the education of deaf children. It is a matter of great interest to understand why Stokoe was able to see these things when the bulk of professionals trained in the relevant areas could not—if we come to even a partial answer to this question, we will have gained a bit of insight into the nature of human genius. With hindsight, it seems obvious that one of the things he had going for him was precisely his lack of training (or prejudice) in areas relevant to deafness. He also brought a first-rate mind (an inquiring mind) and training in the study of language generally (he had bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees in English from Cornell). The final ingredients seem to have been his persistence (some would say his obstinacy), his predisposition to question authority, and a well-developed sense of fairness or justice (see Maher 1996, for a discussion of his childhood, his education, and his first years at Gallaudet).

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