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An Interview with the Editor

In Fall of 2000, after a three year hiatus, Sign Language Studies reinitiated publication under the new editorial direction of David F. Armstrong. Founded in 1972 by the preeminent sign language scholar William C. Stokoe, SLS has long been considered the leading journal in its field, indeed the very first of its kind. Recently, Dr. Armstrong discussed the history of SLS with Gallaudet University Press News, explaining where the journal has come from and where he would like it to go from here.

Gallaudet University Press News: Why did Dr. Stokoe begin publishing SLS, and/or what was the impetus behind its creation?

David F. Armstrong: Dr. Stokoe began publishing SLS as the result of encouragement from Thomas Sebeok of Indiana University, one of the major figures in Semiotics. Semiotics is the general study of human sign systems - signs here meaning the components of human communication in the most inclusive sense. Dr. Stokoe felt that there was not then an adequate outlet for publishing work on signed languages, as the linguistics journals at the time did not seem receptive. At first, SLS was published through Indiana University, later the Mouton Company in the Netherlands, and finally, after the ownership of Mouton changed, by Dr. Stokoe’s own corporation, Linstok Press, in the late 1970’s.

GUPN: What impact did SLS have on its field when it was first released in 1972?

DA: SLS had a profound impact on the field of sign language research. In fact, one could almost say that it enabled the field to get started as a serious scholarly endeavor. It provided an outlet for the work of young researchers trying to establish themselves in the field, and most of the major researchers have published in it. For science and scholarship to flourish, there must be a vehicle for publishing and disseminating the latest findings and theories. Progress occurs when these results are discussed and debated, leading to further refinements. It is my hope that SLS will continue to serve this function for the fields of sign language research and deaf studies.

GUPN: How did you become associated with Dr. Stokoe?

DA: I first met Dr. Stokoe in 1980 when I came to work in the planning office at Gallaudet. At that time I was completing my dissertation in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. I shared some of my work on the origin of language with Dr. Stokoe and he was immediately interested in publishing it. The question of how language arose in human evolutionary history had long been one of his interests. In fact, many people don’t realize that he was one of the major figures in the rebirth of scientific interest in this question. Later Dr. Stokoe invited me to serve on the SLS editorial board.

GUPN: What has Dr. Stokoe’s lifetime dedication to the study of sign language meant to the discipline?

DA: Bill Stokoe put Sign Language research on the map. He literally provided the scientific and philosophical substructure on which all subsequent theories have been built. The great range of ideas that have emerged from the field, contributed by numerous scholars, are testimony to the profundity of his original insights and his continuing efforts. It is testimony to the greatness of the man himself that he continues to be productive even though he is now past his 80th birthday and suffers from a serious illness.

GUPN: In the context of its brief history, how would you characterize the state of “the study of sign language” and sign linguistics today?

DA: I would say that it is in a state of productive ferment, reflective of the state of linguistics and anthropology generally. Competing and fundamentally different ideas about the nature of language and how it emerges are being debated in the field. I think it is a very exciting time and that an understanding of the nature of signed languages will be pivotal in the resolution of these debates.

GUPN: What are your goals for SLS?

DA: I want SLS to continue to be what it has always been - a place where original scholarship concerning signed languages and deaf communities can be published and issues debated. I think that the scope will broaden a bit - I am especially interested in providing an outlet for research on the history and anthropology of deaf and other signing communities. But I have a fundamental commitment to continuing the role of SLS as a primary outlet for research on signed languages and how they work.

GUPN: Who would you like to see reading SLS in a few years’ time?

DA: I hope that it will be read by everyone interested in deaf communities and in signed language and all who use them.

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