Multilingualism and Sign Languages

From the Great Plains to Australia

First Edition

Edited by Ceil Lucas

Categories: Linguistics
Series: Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities
Imprint: Gallaudet University Press
Hardcover : 9781563682964, 296 pages, November 2006
Ebook : 9781563683794, 296 pages, September 2009
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Part One: Multilingualism

A Historical Linguistic Account of Sign Language
among North American IndiansJeffrey E. Davis

Signed communication among various indigenous peoples has been observed and documented across the North American continent since fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European contact. Early scholars of this subject (e.g., Clark 1885; Mallery 1880; Scott 1931; Tomkins 1926) have made cases for the North American Indian sign variety to justify its being considered a full-fledged language. Two predominant themes in the early writings about Indian signed languages are “universality” and “iconicity”—theoretical issues that signed language linguists continue to address even today. The study of such phenomena helps broaden our understanding of these issues and other linguistic questions. For example, the early research on Indian signed languages informed the seminal work of some of the first signed language linguists (e.g., Stokoe 1960; Battison 1978/2003). These historical linguistic data need to be reexamined in light of current linguistic theories, interdisciplinary perspectives, and current sign use among deaf and hearing North American Indians and other indigenous populations around the world.
Observed and documented across several geographic locations and cultural areas, the historical varieties of indigenous signed language specific to North America are sometimes collectively referred to as “North American Indian Sign Language” (see Wurtzburg and Campbell, 1995). Historically, these varieties of signed language were named in various ways—Plains Indian Sign Language, Indian Sign Language, The Sign Language, Indian Language of Signs, and historical references in this paper will apply those names where appropriate. Previous anthropological linguistic field research (Kroeber 1958; Voegelin 1958; West 1960) indicates that signed language was used in varying degrees within most of the language families of Native North America. The best documented cases of indigenous signed languages involved various Indian groups who once inhabited the Great Plains area of the North American continent (see table 1). This enormous geographic expanse stretched north to south for more than two thousand miles from the North Saskatchewan River in Canada to the Rio Grande in Mexico. The east-west boundaries were approximately the Mississippi-Missouri valleys and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and encompassed an area of some one million square miles. Generally, twelve major geographic cultural areas of Native North America are identified in the literature with the Plains cultural area centrally located to all of these (cf. Campbell 2000, Mithun 1999). Historically, this large geographic area was one of extreme linguistic diversity, and hundreds of different languages were spoken among the native populace.

I am grateful to the Office of the Chancellor and Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Tennessee for their generous support to have digitized the documentary materials that are the focus of this paper. I would also like to acknowledge the support from a National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation Documenting Endangered Languages fellowship (FN-50002-06). Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Tennessee, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation, or the Smithsonian Institution.

The Plains tribes were geographically and culturally central to most of the other North American Indian cultural groups and a signed lingua franca appears to have evolved as a way to make communication possible among individuals speaking so many different mother tongues (Davis, 2005). Traditionally, the nomadic groups of the Great Plains used Plains Sign Language (PISL hereafter) as an alternate to spoken language. Beyond the Plains geographic area, fluent signers of PISL have been identified among native groups from the Plateau area—e.g., the Nez Perce (Sahaptian) and the Flathead (Salishan). In what remains the most extensive study of PISL to date, West (1960) reported dialect differences among these Indian groups, but found that these did not seriously impede signed communication. In the late 1950s, West found that PISL was still practiced, particularly on intertribal ceremonial occasions but also in storytelling and conversation, even among speakers of the same language. The historical ethnographic and linguistic documentary materials that are the focus of this paper support that PISL was used as a lingua franca among the Plains Indian tribes as well as between them and other American Indian linguistic groups (compare Campbell 2000; Davis 2005; Farnell 1995; Mithun 1999; Taylor 1978; Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok 1978; Wurtzburg and Campbell 1995).

For example, Campbell (2000, 10) writes that “the sign language as a whole became the lingua franca of the Great Plains, and it spread from there as far as British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.” Evidently there was some variation from tribe to tribe, and not all individuals were equally proficient in signed language. Varying degrees of signed language use among some American Indian individuals and groups has been observed even today. However, the number of users has dramatically declined since the nineteenth century, leading several researchers to conclude that these traditional signed language varieties are endangered (Davis 2005; Farnell 1995; Kelly and McGregor 2003; McKay-Cody 1997). Contemporary and historical use of the signed language among Native American groups needs to be documented, described, and stabilized through language maintenance and education to prevent imminent language loss.

Researchers have proposed that the signed systems used by hearing Indians as an alternative to spoken language became a primary signed language when acquired natively by tribal members who are deaf (Davis and Supalla 1995; Kelly and McGregor 2003; McKay-Cody 1997). These studies have reported the contemporary use of traditional PISL among both deaf and hearing Native American descendents of the Plains Indian cultural groups. Deaf and hearing individuals from other Native American groups, such as the Diné/Navajo (Davis and Supalla 1995) and the Keresan of the New Mexico Pueblo cultural area (Kelly and McGregor 2003) appear to sign a variety that is distinct from traditional PISL. Preliminarily, the available linguistic evidence suggests that these traditional ways of signing among Indian groups are distinct from American Sign Language (ASL). At the same time, striking similarities in linguistic structure between PISL and ASL (e.g., marked and unmarked handshapes, symmetry and dominance conditions, classifier forms, and nonmanual markers), have been documented (see Davis 2005, Davis and Supalla 1995, McKay-Cody 1997). In this paper, I report the documented cases of historical and contemporary signed language use among North American Indian groups, present preliminary linguistic descriptions and findings, and offer readers a link to a prototype on-line digital archive of PISL documentary materials. The author aims to expand this open access on-line linguistic corpus of PISL to include more documentary materials, translations, and analyses. This will encourage and facilitate language revitalization efforts, further research, and scholarship. The link to the on-line digital archive of PISL documentary materials is Plains Sign Language Digital Archive:


Clearly, there was (and still remains) an indigenous form of North American signed language, and its use has been historically documented as being widespread. Wurtzburg and Campbell (1995) make a compelling case for there having been a preexistent, well developed indigenous signed language across the Gulf Coast-Texas-northern Mexico area before European contact. In their historical study of “North American Indian Sign Language,” Wurtzburg and Campbell (1995, 160) define “sign language” as “a conventionalized gesture language of the sort later attested among the Plains and neighboring areas.” Based on numerous early historical accounts, they report that the earliest and most substantive accounts is from the 1527 expedition for the conquest of Florida, lead by the Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca who reported numerous occasions wherein native groups communicated with signs (1995, 154–55). According to the historical record, Cabeza de Vaca “also clearly distinguished which groups spoke the same language, which spoke different languages but understood others, and which groups did not understand others at all, except through the use of sign language” (1995, 155). Similar accounts were made by Coronado in 1541 (reported in Taylor 1978), and subsequent reports were made in the eighteenth century (e.g., Santa Ana in 1740 [reported in Mithun 1999]). Goddard (1979), and Wurtzburg and Campbell (1995) published papers about the role served by signed languages and some spoken native languages as lingua francas, and have discussed the pidgins, trade languages and “mixed” systems used among native groups. The generally accepted hypothesis among scholars (see Campbell 2000; Mithun 1999) is that North American Indian Sign Language originated and spread from the Gulf Coast, became the intertribal lingua franca of the Great Plains, and spread throughout the northwest territories of the United States and Canada (compare Goddard 1979; Taylor 1978; Wurtzburg and Campbell 1995). Further research of these topics is needed, but presently beyond the scope of this paper. The historical linguistic documents and ethnographic accounts that are the focus of this paper support that signed language was used beyond the Great Plains area and was evident across most of the major American Indian cultural areas (e.g., Southeast and Gulf Coast, Southwest, Plateau and Basin, Subarctic, Mesoamerica, and Northeast).

Attention to the rich legacy of historical linguistic documents that remain (essays, descriptions, illustrations, films) is needed in light of new linguistic theories. The indigenous origins of contemporary signed language use among Native American deaf and hearing signers across different geographic and cultural contexts must be documented. Further consideration must be given to the intergenerational use of highly elaborate signed communication systems that have been documented for hearing signing communities, even when deaf people are not present (e.g., historically on Martha’s Vineyard as well as currently and historically in some indigenous and monastic communities). In addition to signed language use in Deaf communities, this linguistic phenomenon (i.e., signing communities that are predominately hearing) has been and continues to be documented in several aboriginal communities around the world and is also evident in some occupational settings and monastic traditions (see, e.g., Davis and Supalla 1995; Farnell 1995; Johnson 1994; Kendon 1988, 2002; Kelly and McGregor 2003; Plann 1997; Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok 1978; Washabaugh 1986a, 1986b).

More recently, some signed language linguists (Davis 2005; Davis and Supalla 1995; Johnson 1994; Farnell 1995; Kelly and McGregor 2003; McKay-Cody 1997) have documented contemporary signed language use among other North American linguistic groups—for example, Algonquian (Blackfeet) and Siouan (Assiniboine, Dakotan, Stoney) language groups as well as Navajo (Diné), Keresan Pueblo, Northern Cheyenne, Yucatan-Mayan, and others. In light of new field studies and linguistic theories, linguists have reexamined the documented occurrences of aboriginal signed language in North American and in other continents (e.g., Australia and South America). The evidence suggests that in addition to its documented history as a intertribal lingua franca, signed language was used intratribally for a variety of discourse purposes (e.g., storytelling, gender-specific activities, times when speech was taboo, ritual practices).

In this paper, I examine the documented film and written ethnographic accounts of North American Indians signing an assortment of topics, including different discourse types across a variety of settings and participants. Furthermore, I consider some of the historical connections between ASL and indigenous signed language varieties. Historic and contemporary uses of signed language have been documented in at least one dozen distinct North American language families (phyla). Certainly, signing may have been used by even more groups than these, but at least this many cases were documented in historical linguistic accounts. The archived data reveal that regardless of hearing status, signing was used by members from approximately thirty-seven distinct American Indian spoken language groups. Conventions for the classification of North American language families are followed (compare Campbell 2000; Mithun 1999). In each case, the published source is provided and documented cases of current use are highlighted. These historical and contemporary cases are presented in table 1.

Table of contents

Editorial Advisory Board, vii
Editor’s Introduction, ix
A Historical Linguistic Account of Sign Language among North American Indians, 3
   Jeffrey E. Davis
Comparing Language Contact Phenomena in Auslan/English Interpreters and Deaf Australians, 
A Preliminary Study, 39
   Jemina Napier
Capitalizing on Simultaneity: Features of Bimodal Bilingualism in Hearing Italian Native Signers, 79
   Michele Bishop, Sherry Hicks, Antonella Bertone, and Rita Sala
name Dropping: Location Variation in Australian Sign Language, 121
   Adam Schembri, Trevor Johnston, and Della Goswell
Establishing and Maintaining Sight Triangles: Conversations between Deaf Parents and Hearing Toddlers 
in Puerto Rico, 159
   Susan Mather, Yolanda Rodriguez-Fraticelli, Jean F. Andrews, and Juanita Rodriguez
tortoise, hare, children: Evaluation and Narrative Genre in Langue des Signes Québécoise (LSQ), 188
   Marion Blondel, Christopher Miller, and Anne-Marie Parisot
He and I: The Depersonalization of Self in an American Sign Language Narrative, 252
   Bryan K. Eldredge
Contributors, 281

The 12th volume in the Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities series features the varied work of 16 linguistic experts on North American Indian Sign Language, Australian Sign Language, Italian Sign Language, Langue des Signes Québécoise, and American Sign Language.



The 12th Volume in the Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities Series
The latest entry in the Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities series continues to mine the rich resources found in signing communities throughout the world. Divided into four parts, this collection features 16 internationally renowned linguistics experts whose absorbing studies reflect an astonishing range of linguistic diversity.
The sole essay in Part One: Multilingualism describes historic and contemporary uses of North American Indian Sign Language. Part Two: Language Contact examines language-contact phenomena between Auslan/English interpreters and Deaf people in Australia, and the features of bimodal bilingualism in hearing, Italian, native signers. Part Three: Variation reports the results of a study on location variation in Australian Sign Language.
Part Four: Discourse Analysis begins with an analysis of how deaf parents and their hearing toddlers establish and maintain sight triangles when conducting signed conversations. The ensuing chapter explores the use of evaluation within an informal narrative in Langue des Signes Québécoise. The final chapter explicates how a signer depersonalizes the concept of “self” in an American Sign Language narrative through the use of signs for “he” and “I.”


Ceil Lucas is Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Gallaudet University, Washington, DC.