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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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From Deafness & Education International

Over 40 years prior to the publication of this book, William C. Stokoe first suggested that deaf people�s signing might actually represent a full language. This original instinct was to open the way for the recognition not only of American Sign Language but also of other sign languages throughout the world as rich linguistic systems. In this, ultimately one of his final contributions to the field of sign language linguistics, Stokoe aims to show how, on an evolutionary scale, sign languages could have provided the basis for the development of spoken languages.

Stokoe claims that the capacity for language was first developed through the use of gesture and eventually evolved from sign languages into spoken languages. In the first seven chapters of the book, he examines how the evolution of human biological and social structures contributes to the likelihood that gesture provides the building blocks for an initial syntax. In the remaining chapters, Stokoe examines why initial languages based on gestural systems gradually shifted to vocal systems. His main argument is that signs could have provided a necessary and pivotal link in the evolution of one of the greatest human achievements: language.

In the past, people have used evolutionary logic to bolster the idea that sign language is a more primitive communication system than spoken language. In the early days of deaf education in the United States, this claim underpinned the oralist argument that deaf children should be educated via speech and not sign (for an excellent treatment of this, see Baynton,1996). In a sense, Stokoe here proposes a new evolutionary argument in order to show that sign languages are not inferior to spoken languages.

Even though his proposal that gesture precedes speech may be seen to reinforce common assumptions that sign languages are more primitive than speech, a crucial element in his formulations is that the development of speech is not necessarily one of absolute superiority over sign. Rather than sign being lower on the evolutionary scale, it is seen as a crucial and prior link in the development of spoken languages. Both signed and spoken languages are seen as full languages, each with their own functional advantages and disadvantages.

Though the theories outlined here are not likely to be directly applicable to teaching practices used with deaf children, they may provide deeper understandings of the amazing resource that sign languages have provided not just to deaf people but to the human species as well.

-- Jennifer Rayman, Department of Education and Social Science, University of Central Lancashire

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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