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Show of Hands
A Natural History of Sign Language

David F. Armstrong

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Read reviews: Choice, Reference & Research Book News, Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, The Midwest Book Review.

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From the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education

Things do not change, we do.
       Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
       American naturalist, poet, and philosopher.
Many in the field of Deaf Education have learned about sign language from a historical angle that delves into the origins and chronology of sign language. And many already have knowledge about the contributions of Noam Chomsky, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, and Abbé de l’Epée to linguistics and sign language. But how many have sifted through the history and intrinsic value and strength of sign language through an anthropological lens? David. F Armstrong excavates this unique and compelling view for readers from an expert perspective.

In the first chapter, Armstrong unearths the history of the human hands and how hands are related to other senses, such as sight and touch. Armstrong delves into the ever-present controversy of the validity and grammatical complexities present in sign language.

In the second chapter, Armstrong demonstrates his anthropological prowess by digging into the history of sign language in various time periods and cultures. Armstrong also documents the history of sign language as a highly complex language and as a conduit of ideas and interaction with others from basic interactions to highly complex, academic tasks.

Chapter 3 takes readers on a tour, providing information about signing Deaf communities from vast geographic locations ranging from Martha’s Vineyard, Bali, and Nicaragua. Armstrong also discusses the history of indigenous signs from early explorers such as Coronado and Cabeza de Vaca to the aboriginal peoples in Australia. Armstrong concludes this chapter with the characteristics of the evolution of sign language over time.

Chapter 4 includes a recounting of the contributions of William C. Stokoe to sign language and linguistics. A large portion of this chapter is also devoted to an exhumation of the history of research with primates and how conclusions based on research have helped us to understand the change across time in human language.

Chapter 5 exposes technological advances and culture, but focuses on the topic of how the ideology of “Deaf gain” serves to counteract the extinction of sign language. Armstrong writes “ . . . Deaf gain represents the experiences of signing deaf communities collected and stored over many generations and coded for future extraction in sign languages” (p. 95). With the power of Deaf gain, Armstrong suggests no matter the threats posed to Deaf signing people in terms of their language, sign language has enduring qualities to ensure the viability and sustenance of sign language for millenniums to come.

Armstrong skillfully illustrates international history and diverse cultures throughout the book, using artifacts such as artwork, pictures, and illustrations related to the evolution of sign language to bring alive the past with fascinating visual detail. This book would be a valuable supplement to the library of Deaf Studies faculty and students and for sign language interpreters. However, Armstrong’s unique and insightful book would also be a worthy addition to any individual’s bookshelf because it is not simply another book describing the history of sign language.

David F. Armstrong is an anthropologist and former Executive Director and Budget Director, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC.

Print Edition

ISBN 978-1-56368-488-3, 5½ x 8½ paperback, 126 pages, photograph, figures



ISBN 978-1-56368-487-6


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