SASLJ Vol. 2 No. 2 - Page 16

Sign Language Structure Stokoe, Jr. century. One may guess that some notion of the French system had preceded Gallaudet’s formal introduction of it to the United States. How else to explain the rapid flourishing of the language and the schools using this method to the point where a national college for the deaf was deemed necessary and established by Act of Congress in 1864 for the higher education of the graduates of these schools? At any rate the present language of signs in general use among the American deaf stems from both the natural and methodical sign languages of l’Épée, but even the ‘natural’ elements have become fixed by convention so that they are now as arbitrary as any, and users of the language today are disdainful of ‘home signs’ as they call those signs that arise from precisely the same conditions that generate the ‘natural’ signs but that have local and not national currency. Much condensed, this brief history has not always distinguished between signs themselves, which are analogous to words, and a sign language which is a system with levels corresponding to phonological, morphological, and semological organization. Actually one might distinguish not two but three kinds of signs: ‘natural’ signs whether ‘home’ signs or the accepted signs of a sign language in use; ‘conventional’ signs which are coinages with or without direct borrowing from another language; and ‘methodical’ signs, which in origin at least were sign-like labels for grammatical features of another language and were used only in teaching that language. Toward the latter two the language of signs seems to have behaved as have other languages toward borrowings. When the social and educational revolution in the life of the deaf initiated by l’Épée flooded the visual language with new vocabulary, the language adopted many of these conventional signs. But the meta-language of methodical signs was a different system, just as the symbolic code language of electronic computers is different from English; and its contributions could be only individual signs (such as ‘for’) which came into the language with the same status as the conventional signs. That the French language, and later the English language, through the medium of the methodical sign language, or through persons bilingual in French and the sign language, affected the syntax of the sign language actually in use by the deaf may be suspected; but the writer’s projected rigorous demonstration of such influence will have to wait until the analysis of the present sign language is complete enough to allow such historical investigation. (See p. 27) 0.16. Studies of the sign language of the deaf uncomplicated by prescriptions for its use in teaching, by controversy about the advisability of using it at all, or by special pleading for its use as a universal language are not to be found. The work of l’Épée already referred to, despite its emphasis on the teaching of French grammar and syntax, is valuable both for its scattered descriptions of the ‘natural’ signs of the uninstructed deaf-mutes and for its attitude: none before him and all too few after him to the present day have been willing to face the fact that a symbol system by means of which persons carry on all the activities of their ordinary lives is, and ought to be treated as, a language. Various bibliographers have credited l’Épée with beginning a dictionary of signs which was completed and issued by Sicard. Actually this work (Théorie des signes, Paris, 1808) is a two volume list of French words, arranged by subject matter, with their translation into methodical signs. Most of the words require at least three signs for their rendering: a base sign for the lexical meaning; a sign showing whether verb, substantive, adjective, or other; and further signs for determining case, gender, number, etc. This systematically logical way of rendering French vocabulary and semantics in gesture and pantomime is in many ways similar to the New Sign SASLJ, Vol. 2, No. 2 – Fall/Winter 2018 16