Monday, November 20, 2006

381: ASL, LSF, and Native American sign languages

NOTE: still in Ft. Lauderdale. Sister is having so many contractions she doesn't know what to do. I wrote this post yesterday on my blackberry while in the car at night and therefore incommunicado (someone needs to invent a deaf AND hearing-friendly light for the inside of a car. I'll be the first to buy. Enjoy my ramblings, and big love to Moi whose essay inspired this post! -Uncle Rainmound)

I read with interest Moi's post on "So Where Is ASL From Anyway?" itself a response to Carl Schroeder's post "My Ongoing Scholarly Pursuit." I'm with Moi: the evidence is that ASL was derived from LSF, particularly a coded form of LSF developed - and later rejected as a failure - by the Abbe de l'Epee. A lot of relevant information is in Lane's "When the Mind Hears." Here's my own contribution to the discussion, although for me it goes back to Massieu and Clerc, the golden boys of France.

These two famous students of the Deaf institute where the Abbe de l'Epee - and later Sicard - and finally Gallaudet came to work with Deaf people. Jean Jacques Massieu was the rebel who used LSF, coming from a family with six deaf brothers and sisters. Laurent Clerc came later and was the good boy who used "signed French" - a system developed originally by l'Epee and then renounced in his final work on Deaf education. In this final book L'Epee admitted his fake system was a failure, and the best means of education was through LSF, and seemed to hint that all coded sign languages must, because of the necessities of the visual mode, tend towards a natural signed grammar. (A hundred years or so later, we discovered similar facts about ASL and the various "signed codes" - the codes work for communication, but not for education. There's a difference between getting your point across, and becoming a model for understanding a new idea.) Gallaudet, however, preferred the more docile Clerc to the wilder Massieu; Clerc, educated in L'Epee's code, was easier to understand than Massieu, who grew up in a family of Deaf people and used LSF like Pollack used paint. Gallaudet found the code easier to learn than the language. What did he bring back? Clerc. It was Clerc's code that he learned, and what lay behind the code eventually developed into ASL: as I said, all coded languages eventually tend towards ones with real syntax appropriate for the modality of the language itself. As Allison Fanara reports, in a lecture by Paddy Ladd:
"Massieu and Clerc felt that there were two groups of languages - natural and artificial. Natural languages belonged to the Deaf and the savages. Artificial languages belonged to the hearing people. They believed that language was linked to Deaf biology. This was why Deaf people were more of a global group; they were the Sign Language peoples. Therefore, they were among the First Nation people, those who believed that they belonged to Earth, not vice versa."

It is true that, from the perspective of Massieu and Clerc, artificial languages belonged to hearing people - they were continually coming up with "new" ones. (L'Epee used a two-handed manual alphabet, derived possibly from one used in England.)

Another interesting question is: how much influence did Native American signed languages have on the developing American Signed Language? I do not know the answer to this but I suspect it is an answer derived from class. Most of the people at Gallaudet's school needed money to attend, and came from wealthy families; chances are they'd never have had a chance to socialise with Native Americans of any tribe. And look at this: here's a website with some French signs. (note - having problems getting this to work - any help?) Compare and contrast for yourself.

One other point. Does the American sign for "with" use the letter "a", implying a derivation of the word "avec"? This is debatable, but I don't think so - if only because the LSF "code" for the letter A is different from the American manual alphabet's code; in LSF, the thumb is extended in the manual alphabet. We'd need pictures from the time to figure out how it started, an as Carl Schroeder notes, there are few if any visual records from Clerc's time, although there are some alphabets scattered around from the 16- and 1700's.

The question is: is the "a" in WITH the alphabetical A, the handshape "a" (and handshapes are an alphabet of their own only partially derived from written alphabets) - or a derivation of the LSF version of the French "a"? Or possibly even a derivation of a French handshape which has nothing to do with the letter at all? You see the possibilities are endless, and of course they could have changed over time - we could have started with a French handshape that evolved into a French letter that moved to America and became an English letter and eventually turned into an ASL handshape... Language is fluid, and grows, and changes, and we understand it only when we understand the whole.
A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again. -Alexander Pope


QueenAlpo said...

A friend and I were discussing this the other day -- if there were successful deaf people in America before the l'Epee/Clerc/Gallaudet saga, what sign language did they use? Would it still be French-influenced?

The Purloined Letter said...

What an interesting discussion!

Hearing instructors of Deaf pupils did write about pedagogy and language in the antebellum period and did discuss how to sign particular words--partly in an effort to teach hearing parents how to communicate with their deaf children before they enrolled in schools. While that kind of source does not tell us exactly what Deaf people actually USED, it is somewhat suggestive. Perhaps that could help you find some answers?

I seem to recall reading descriptions of WITH having the thumbs pointing straight up. I'll see if I can find anything and let you know.

What if Clerc idiosyncratically signed his As with the thumb closed in a bit? Or what if he just had a hurt thumb while he was teaching Gallaudet? Something as simple as this might have recast codified fingerspelling. Kind of a bizarre thought.

There is some information about Deaf Virginians using a two-handed alphabet into the mid 1850s. Perhaps this is a vestige from the Bolling school?

Does the Martha's Vineyard research suggest much about specific language use before Clerc?

Joseph Rainmound said...

Queen Alpo - what do you mean by "successful deaf people?" Clerc set up the first school for Deaf people in 1817. Compare this to other minorities - The first woman became a doctor in 1849. Girton College for Women was set up in 1870. The first school for Black people was est. in 1837. This is probably closer to the Deaf experience, because like the Deaf school's aim was to teach people to write and speak, so too was the Black college's goal to teach freed slaves to read and write. It's only in recent years that all these institutions have begun to open up to identity issues as well as educational issues - and then these identity issues feed back into education.

Before the Clerc/Gallaudet saga - before 1817 - America was established in 1776. People came from Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands. Presumably any signed languages came from Deaf individuals who came from those countries. This would be a tiny group... but I suspect pre-1817 Signed languages were derivations from these countries, as well as (of course) native American tribes and their individual signed languages.

Purloined - it seems that Martha's Vineyard Sign Language was derived from Old Kent Sign Language, a British signed language from the town of Kent which is now, apparently, extinct. I'm not sure how good the research is here, but I suspect over time MVSL was absorbed into ASL, or vice versa. Langugages blend, you know, like smoothies.

Anonymous said...

you can get one of those night lites at target and plug it in the works well in my toyota.
of course, you still need to keep your eyes on the road.

Anonymous said...

The sign WITH with extended thumb may have derived from old LSF classifier for "one person", the thumb being this entity. The ASL sign COMMUTE/BACK-AND-FORTH shows this use of the old LSF classifier handshape. The extended thumb version of the sign WITH ist also frequently used today.

Laurent Clerc must have fingerspelled "A" with the thumb extended, but his pupils have changed it to the today's version because it is phonologically easier and less straining to do than so. Not only the handshape for the letter "A" has changed, but others as well, for example for "F" and "T". Also another change must have occured, that is how you hold your hand while fingerspelling. Today's lower arm position is vertical, while earlier in France it was lower and somewhat horizontal. This must be due to keep all articulators (face and hand) within the same vision field.


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