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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language in Hand
Why Sign Came Before Speech

William C. Stokoe

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Read reviews: Library Journal, Hearing Health, CHOICE, Deafness & Education International.


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In 1960, William Stokoe, then a young faculty member in the English department at Gallaudet College, published a short monograph entitled Sign Language Structure, in which he suggested that the signing used by deaf people in the U.S. to communicate with one another was a language in its own right. This idea, initially greeted with derision, is now universally accepted among linguists. It constituted the start of a major paradigm shift in how sign languages were viewed, understood, and analyzed, and today there is an extensive linguistic research base dealing with American Sign Language. Last year, Stokoe died after a career that revolutionized the world of the deaf — but his Language in Hand, published posthumously, has the makings of yet another revolutionary contribution to our understanding of language and the world.  As the subtitle suggests, Stokoe argues that sign came before speech, and that the evolutionary process that gave rise to human language began with gestures and signs, developed into signed language, and only then emerged in an oral/aural form. Stokoe’s arguments are powerful and compelling, and deserve the widespread attention and respect they will certainly receive. Recommended for general readers and upper-division undergraduate students and above.

-- T. Reagan, University of Connecticut

William C. Stokoe was Professor Emeritus at Gallaudet University and the founding editor of Sign Language Studies.

ISBN 1-56368-103-X, 6 x 9 hardcover, 246 pages, footnotes, endnotes, sign illustrations, bibliography, index


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