William C. Stokoe, Jr
Founder of Sign Language Linguistics
Dr. William C. Stokoe, Jr., 80, Professor Emeritus at Gallaudet University, died on April 4 at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, following a long illness. Stokoe was widely recognized, both nationally and internationally, as the creator of the linguistic study of the sign languages of the deaf. He was born in Lancaster, New Hampshire and spent most of his childhood in rural New York State, near Rochester. He received bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees in English from Cornell University in the 1940’s, and then taught English at Wells College in Aurora, New York, before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1955 to teach English to deaf students at Gallaudet University (then Gallaudet College).
At the time of his arrival at Gallaudet, the sign language used by deaf Americans and now known as American Sign Language (ASL) was generally believed to be a corrupt visual code for spoken English or elaborate pantomime. It and other national sign languages were widely suppressed in educational programs for deaf students, in favor of instruction in articulation and lip-reading. Stokoe proposed instead that ASL was, in fact, a fully formed human language in the same sense as spoken languages like English. He set about devising a descriptive system for the language that could be used to demonstrate this point to other linguists and the general public. This work culminated in the first modern linguistic treatment of a signed language, a monograph entitled Sign Language Structure, published in 1960. This was followed by the first dictionary of ASL, the 1965 volume A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles that Stokoe compiled with two deaf colleagues at Gallaudet, Carl Croneberg and Dorothy Casterline; and, in 1971, Stokoe established the Linguistic Research Laboratory at Gallaudet. In 1972, Stokoe founded the journal Sign Language Studies as a vehicle for the publication of scholarly work on ASL and other signed languages. He edited the journal until 1996. For many years, Stokoe also owned and operated a small publishing house, Linstok Press, with his wife Ruth Palmeter Stokoe whom he had married in 1942. The Press and the journal published a variety of books and articles on topics related to the signed languages of the deaf and on the origin and evolution of language in general.
These and Stokoe’s other published works won wide acceptance in the linguistic community and ultimately among educators of the deaf, such that ASL is now widely recognized as an appropriate language of instruction for deaf students and even as an appropriate second language for hearing students in high schools and universities in the United States. Stokoe was also a tireless personal advocate for the linguistic and educational rights of deaf people, often in the face of skepticism or even outright hostility. Stokoe’s relationships with administrators and other colleagues at Gallaudet were often stormy, and following his retirement from Gallaudet in 1984, his creation, the Linguistic Research Laboratory, was closed down. Readers interested in the details of his relationship with Gallaudet University and much else about his life and ideas should consult the excellent biography by Jane Maher, Seeing Language in Sign: The Work of William C. Stokoe, published by Gallaudet University Press in 1996.
The linguistic movement that Stokoe founded is widely credited with providing critical support for movements around the world in which deaf people have won educational and civil rights. In 1980, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) presented a festschrift, Sign Language and the Deaf Community, to him in honor of his many years of service to the American and world deaf communities. Following the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement and the accession of I. King Jordan to the presidency of Gallaudet, Stokoe was made Professor Emeritus and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University in 1988. He also received honorary doctorates from the University of Copenhagen and from Madonna University in Michigan. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In addition to his work on ASL, Stokoe was one of a group of scholars, including Charles Hockett, Gordon Hewes, Roger Wescott, Stevan Harnad, Horst Steklis, and Jane Lancaster, who led a revival of scientific interest in the origin and evolution of the human capacity for language. He is especially known for his contribution to the theory that human language began as visible gesture and that the syntactic patterns of modern languages may have been derived from the inherently grammatical structure of iconic manual gestures. With Hewes and Wescott as co-editors, Stokoe and Linstok Press published the volume Language Origins in 1974. Later, in 1995, Stokoe was co-author of another book on language origins, Gesture and the Nature of Language, with David F. Armstrong and Sherman E. Wilcox. He was actively writing and publishing up until the final few weeks of his life, and among his last works is the manuscript for a book, Language in Hand, that will be published later this year by Gallaudet University Press.
David F. Armstrong
David F. Armstrong is the author of Original Signs: Gesture, Sign, and the Sources of Language and is the editor of Dr. Stokoe's quarterly journal Sign Language Studies. You can read more about SLS or about Jane Maher's biography of Dr. Stokoe, Seeing Language in Sign.