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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Study of Signed Languages: Essays in Honor of William C. Stokoe
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For someone with an open and inquiring mind, and an interest in language and communication, there can be few more stimulating environments than that provided by Gallaudet. Here deaf people communicate among themselves and with hearing people using a great variety of communication systems and codes that we can now recognize, thanks to Stokoe, as ranging from natural signed languages (mainly ASL), to what look like languages of contact between ASL and English, to invented sign codes syntactically modeled on English. During the course of an average day, members of the Gallaudet community are likely to have to negotiate a number of communication situations involving a number of these systems and codes. In this environment, one develops a heightened sense of the range of possible forms that languages can take and a sensitivity to the differences among them

We have established already that Stokoe was the right person, and now we have located him in the right place. What about the time? Stokoe arrived at Gallaudet just as the civil rights movement was just beginning to challenge the traditional caste structure of the United States. As this movement matured during the 1960’s, an idea became firmly entrenched in the United States that individuals should not be deprived of legal, civil, educational, or economic rights because of their membership in any particular ethnic, religious, or linguistic group. Ultimately, this idea was extended to include people with physical disabilities. It cannot be completely coincidental that the nascent movement that Stokoe helped to launch came ultimately to be seen as a civil rights movement in its own right.

What He Did

So what was it exactly that he did? He is often described as having “discovered” ASL or as having “proved” that ASL is a language. A good deal of mythology seems to have sprung up around this question, and we think that, to some extent, Stokoe felt about it the way Columbus should have felt when he was described as having “discovered” America. Just as American Indians had known about the Americas for more than 10,000 years before Columbus arrived, so deaf people had been aware of the “languageness” of their signing and of the benefits that it conferred long before Stokoe came on the scene. They were also “proving” that it was a real language on a daily basis by using it to perform all of the functions that languages usually perform. But just as Columbus had done with respect to the scope of the physical world, Stokoe’s accomplishment was to reveal these facts to a larger, skeptical public; and, in doing so, he made a “Columbian” addition to our knowledge of the linguistic world and to our understanding of the human condition.

One aspect of Stokoe’s genius was to recognize that it would not be good enough simply to announce the “good news” that sign language was really a language—he would need to show it using the tools of the science of language, the tools of descriptive linguistics. Linguistic science in the mid-1950s was just about to be turned on its head by a young scholar named Noam Chomsky. He launched an intellectual revolution following which language came to be seen more as a cognitive than as a social phenomenon, but that revolution need not concern us here. Stokoe was mainly influenced by an older anthropological linguistics that had as its most urgent goal describing exotic languages that were facing extinction. Anthropological linguists, and anthropologists in general for that matter, had for a half century been trying to overcome Western prejudices that had depicted non-Western languages as somehow inferior to those of Europe. These scholars had developed an armamentarium that could be used to describe any spoken language and commit it to paper.

They had come to realize that all languages have regular structures at a level below that of the individual word—according to the terminology of linguistics, they have sublexical or phonological structure. This structure is based upon systems of contrast—differences in meaning must be based upon perceptible differences in language sounds, as in bat and hat. It is this sublexical structure that makes phonetic writing possible, and all spoken languages have it. Stokoe’s masterstroke was to show that ASL has such a structure and that it too can be written in a phonetic-like script (Stokoe 1960; Stokoe, Croneberg and Casterline 1965). By devising a workable script, he was able to convince other language scholars that ASL employs such a system of linguistic contrast, that it has a regular internal structure, and that is, therefore, not simply ad-hoc pantomime or a corrupt visual code for English. It is beyond the scope of this introduction to describe Stokoe’s system. (See Armstrong 1999, for a description of the system and a discussion of its historical importance), but it is worth noting that it has held up well, despite numerous attempts to improve upon it, and is still used to transcribe signed languages. Stokoe, along with two deaf colleagues, Carl Croneberg and Dorothy Casterline, used this notation system to compile the first comprehensive dictionary of ASL in 1965.

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