View Our Catalog

Join Our E-Mail List

What's New

Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

Press Home

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

Next Page


Having completed this initial descriptive work, Stokoe then set about convincing the larger world of the linguistic qualities of ASL, he took these ideas “on the road” so to speak. At Gallaudet, he put in place several operations that would further bolster the legitimacy of ASL and other signed languages. First, he set up the Linguistic Research Laboratory in 1971 and invited people in from around the world to work on problems in the description and interpretation of signed languages. This provided an institutional home for signed language research. Second, in 1972, he founded the journal Sign Language Studies to provide an outlet for publication of increasingly complex and sophisticated scholarly articles on linguistic and other aspects of the signed languages of the deaf. This was at a time when mainstream linguistics journals showed little interest in publishing work from this incipient field. Stokoe owned, edited, and published this journal himself for more than twenty years, and the journal chronicles the growth and maturation of the fields of signed language research and deaf studies. It is now owned and operated by Gallaudet University Press.

During the early 1970s, Stokoe began to see that his work on ASL might have a larger significance, beyond the development of increasingly complex linguistic studies and the support these were providing for the reform of deaf education. At this time, Stokoe became interested in the newly reinvigorated scientific study of the origin and evolution of the human capacity for language. Because this topic had been the subject of rampant and undisciplined speculation around the turn of the twentieth century, it had fallen out of favor with linguists and anthropologists. Stokoe joined a small group of scholars, including Gordon Hewes, Charles Hockett, Roger Wescott, Stevan Harnad, and Horst Steklis, who began to synthesize new information from paleontology, primatology, neuroscience, linguistics, and, significantly, sign language studies into more coherent scenarios for the evolution of language (see Harnad, Steklis, and Lancaster 1976). During the past quarter century, these scenarios have grown more sophisticated and plausible, due in large part to Stokoe’s efforts.

Stokoe concerned himself especially with evolutionary problems that might be solved by postulating a signing stage in human evolution. He participated in several important symposia on this topic, one of which resulted in the book Language Origins (Wescott 1974). In order to get this book into print, Stokoe established a small publishing company, Linstok[1] Press, which also took over publication of the journal Sign Language Studies. Stokoe came to believe that iconic manual gesture must have played a key role in the transition from non-human primate communication to human language. In making this assertion, he was rediscovering a line of thinking that went back at least to the Abbé de Condillac, an influential figure in the French enlightenment of the eighteenth century. According to this line of thinking, the introduction of iconic manual gesture might solve the problem of attribution of meaning to arbitrary vocal signals—iconic gestures which resemble the things they refer to might form a bridge to the symbolic relationship of speech sounds to their referents. This might occur if iconic gestures became paired with non-iconic sounds in reference to objects and events in the environment. But Stokoe went a step beyond this to suggest that iconic manual gestures might also have been involved in the thornier question of how syntax might have originated. This goes to the question at the heart of Chomskyan linguistics which posits syntax as the defining characteristic of human languages—how do languages come to refer not only to objects and events, but to the infinite number of possible relationships among them?

Although Stokoe was no fan of Chomskyan linguistics, there is an interesting parallel between his later thinking and that of Chomsky. We alluded above to the increasing complexity of the linguistics of signed languages. Stokoe began to see in this an unnecessary and ultimately unproductive obscurantism. In response to this trend, he published in 1991, an extraordinarily original article entitled “Semantic Phonology.” At the same time, Chomsky was moving in the direction of a “minimalist program” for generative linguistics (Chomsky 1995). According to this program, the number of essential linguistic parameters could be reduced to two: a logical form and a phonetic form. Stokoe proposed that all of the multilayered complexity that had been introduced in linguistic descriptions of signed languages could also be reduced to two parameters: something acting (in the case of manual gesture, a hand) and its action. Stokoe pointed out, moreover, that this acting unit had the essential characteristics of one of Chomsky’s elementary sentences, a noun phrase plus a verb phrase. The final link in his chain of reasoning is that use of such of iconic manual gestures by early humans might have led to analysis of the agent/action relationship that is inherent to them, leading ultimately to the elaboration of syntax and, hence, language. His views on these and many other issues are summed up in his final major work, a book entitled Language in Hand, published posthumously by Gallaudet University Press (Stokoe 2001; and see Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox 1995).


1. It is worth noting for posterity that the name “Linstok” was a play on the words “linguistics,” “Stokoe,” and “linstock,” the last referring to a device used to hold a match for firing a cannon.
Previous Page

Next Page