SASLJ Vol. 2 No. 2 - Page 123

Afterword Meier ASL. 1960 was also the year in which Charles F. Hockett published a still-famous paper on “design features” of human language. Hockett identified 13 features which, he thought, are characteristic of all human languages. He wrote that the first one—the vocal-auditory channel—“is perhaps the most obvious” (p. 90). He acknowledged that there are “systems of communication that use other channels…”; gesture was one of his examples. But, in that 1960 paper, Hockett did not explain why the vocal-auditory channel is such an obvious design feature; he only suggested that “The vocal-auditory channel has the advantage—at least for primates—that it leaves much of the body free for other activities that can be carried out at the same time.” Prior to 1960, twentieth-century linguists found little reason to be interested in signed languages. Leonard Bloomfield (1933, p. 39) wrote: “Some communities have a gesture language which upon occasion they use instead of speech. Such gesture languages have been observed among the lower-class Neapolitans, among Trappist monks (who have made a vow of silence), among the Indians of our western plains (where tribes of different language met in commerce and war), and among groups of deaf-mutes. “It seems certain that these gesture languages are merely developments of ordinary gestures and that any and all complicated or not immediately intelligible gestures are based on the conventions of ordinary speech.” Bloomfield was immensely interested in certain minority languages—for example, the Algonquian languages of Native North America. But his interests did not extend to the “gesture languages” that he listed. This intellectual context helps us to understand the significance of Stokoe’s research; he was not working in an intellectual tradition that was congenial to signed languages. But, thanks to Stokoe, 1960 was the year in which the field of linguistics started to understand that linguistic methods of analysis could encompass signed as well as spoken languages. By identifying pairs of signs that differed in just one parameter, he led us to understand that there is sublexical structure within signs as well as words. In her commentary, Diane Lillo-Martin writes that this was a “revolution for deaf people’s language.” Stokoe’s work also brought forth a revolution in linguistics, a revolution that gathered force with the work of Edward Klima and Ursula Bellugi (1979). This revolution sparked fundamental changes in our understanding of what a human language is; we now know that the vocal-auditory channel is not a necessary design feature of human languages. Instead, the purview of linguistics would forever be expanded to include signed and spoken languages. Through the work of Stokoe and his successors, linguistics has learned something fundamental about what it means to be human—that the human language capacity is plastic and allows naturally-evolved languages in two channels (and perhaps three, if we consider the tactile-gestural signing of Deaf-Blind people). SASLJ, Vol. 2, No. 2 – Fall/Winter 2018 123