Sign Language’s Battle for Acceptance

Cindee Calton (and BB-8) Source

It’s time for another chapter review of Deaf Gain. This week is Chapter 7, Cindee Calton’s  “What We Learned from Sign Languages When We Stopped Having to Defend Them.”

The Modern Language Association Invented Language List

William Stokoe published “Sign Language Structure” in 1960 asserting, and proving, ASL was a real language. But as late as 1997 the Modern Language Association (MLA) was still putting it alongside Klingon as an invented language (117).


I literally gasped when I read this. I like to think myself open-minded which means I try to consider all points-of-view when reading anything. But especially something as incendiary and demeaning as statements like that. I wanted to both spread the word and not believe it. So like any responsible fact-slinger I took a closer look at my ammo.

The statement isn’t originally the author’s. The endnote points me to Brenda Brueggemann’s book, Deaf Subjects: Between Identities and Place. Like any non-fiction book worth the ink (physical or e-) it’s printed with, it had a colon. So I knew it wasn’t straight-up trash. I kid. So a-searchin’ I went. And thanks to it’s early 2000s (2009 in fact) publication date, it was included in the Google Books digitization efforts. And I was able to search through it to find the mention of Klingon:

The ability to click on the result allowed me to read a little further on. And I found that in 1997 meeting of the MLA’s Committee on Disability Issues in the Profession was when ASL was given its due. I was interested in reading the discussion at that meeting and reached out the committee to ask for the minutes.

The director got back to me tout suite but unfortunately, they are moving and the archive was in storage. He suggested I get back in touch with him in the fall. So I will. And who knows, maybe I’ll have an update then. But for now let’s move onto one of the foremost linguist and his thoughts.

David Crystal’s Thoughts

Decades before the MLA, another language authority, linguist David Crystal, also belittled ASL. He argued in 1978 that there was no syntax in ASL (116). I’ve come to really enjoy his writings. So like realizing how racist Rudyard Kipling was or how copyright-infringing Led Zepplin was it hurt me where my feelings live. Another fav of mine takes a harmful stance? Say it ain’t so! And so, a-googgling I go! And I found the paper in question:

It’s entitled “Contrived Sign Language”, so not a great start. Then Crystal and co-author Elma Craig belittle the those who claim signed languages are inferior to spoken language. I am enheartened! But then in the next sentence they go on to say signed languages shouldn’t be considered languages. Forget hedging their bets, they’ve created a ginormous topiary T-Rex out of their bets!

To their credit, the rest of the paper is setting out to provide evidence to support which of the two positions is valid. They do quote Stokoe but not the 1960 “Sign Language Structure” which is largely thought to be the paper watershed paper that lead to signed languages being accepted as “real” languages. Rather they call upon a 1972 paper that mentions English is a second language to Deaf signers. (142) But a paragraph later, they do quote that seminal paper. Only to throw shade on the finding that signed languages are languages. That done, they set the stage for their evaluation: speech. Not syntactical nor grammatical will their evaluation be. So what did they find?

Based on the 16 features set down by Hocket and Altmann in 1968 (145) as well as 12 characteristics of language they picked (156) their findings are…flawed. And inconclusive. My first issue with it is their using speech to evaluate it. That’s just one part of a language. Then there’s the good chunk of the paper that says translating from English to ASL and then back to English causes problems. Of course it does. Something is always lost in translation. There’s even a recurring post on The Bloggess where she translates the titles of her books back into English. It’s hilarious! The last thing I’ll say about this is they lump ASL in with such things as Signed Exact English and the “Tic-tac” marks of bookkeeping. Oof.

But this paper is 50 years old. The understanding of signed languages has changed dramatically since then. Including the super-duper important factor of people within the Deaf Community evaluating and explaining things to outsiders like Crystal. So while I pondered weak and weary over many a quaint and curious search result, gently I came to tapping on my keyboard to see if one of my favorite linguists (doesn’t everyone have favorite linguists?!) was still of the mind that signed languages were not languages?

I found the answer in a NTY book review of his 2006 book How Language Works:

Another topic Mr. Crystal handles adroitly is sign language. After laying out all the conventional wisdom on sign language (that is, it is no more than a system of sophisticated gesturing and not a real language at all; that there is just one sign language) he declares all of it wrong. He says that sign languages are real languages and that they develop independently as languages even within the same speaking group. British Sign Language and American Sign Language are not mutually intelligible. When “Children of a Lesser God,” Mark Medoff’s play about deafness, was first shown in London, the actors used American Sign Language, and users of the British version had to have the signs interpreted.


Final Thoughts

I just have a final trio of unconnected thoughts on this chapter before I send you on your merry way.

  • It’s asserted that if signs have iconicity, i.e. they physically resemble that which they’re saying, then that language is primitive and not a language at all. A “better” way to is to arbitrarily form words or signs. Don’t ask me why. Even if I did agree with that poppycock, spoken languages would have to be deemed primitive non-languages, too! The letters of the alphabet are iconic. They represent our mouth movements. (119)
  • The Assiniboine, a tribe of the Plains Indian Nation, use both spoken and Plains Sign Language together or by themselves. They don’t see it as an either-or situation. (121) More than one Indigenous tribe in this country uses a signed language. I read Retelling Trickster in Naapi’s Language by Nimachia Howe a couple of years ago. In it she relates how the Blackfoot language incorporates Plains Sign Language. And in PSL, when a story is being told, the position of the hands can place a person in space without having to say it. For me, this shows how complex a signed language can be. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s superior, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to do just that, but I’m trying to show that signed languages are real languages. And this complex trait shows that very well indeed.
  • Blind children gesture with each other and “gestures seem to ‘inoculate’ against stuttering.” (121)

Thoughts? Feelings? Snide Comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.