SASLJ Vol. 2 No. 2 - Page 18

Sign Language Structure Stokoe, Jr. The Indian sign language, also, has been most often written about as a universal language, an instrument of international peace and understanding. To that and its advocates, aware of the deficiency of its vocabulary for this laudable purpose, have enriched it by borrowings, unacknowledged in detail, from the sign language of the deaf. There is also the vexed question of its origin, whether indigenous or directly caused by the sudden impact of a totally foreign culture. Its relation to other elements of some culture or sub-culture needs to be ascertained. Was it over a language in a strict sense or was it from the beginning a trade and treaty code? These and other questions need to be explored, and it is the conviction of the writer that the proper approach is not through Tomkins’ (1926) or Mallery’s (1880, 1881) description of individual signs. Even working with an informant, as Lamont West is reported to be doing (Kroeber, 1958; Voegelin, 1958), may not produce the kind of results intended. Kroeber’s article suggests that it survives mainly as a performance for, and is even modified to meet the demands of, an audience of tourists. The surer way is through a rigorous analysis of the structure of the sign language of the deaf, which has in almost every respect the role of a language in a (minority) culture (0.2 below). Knowledge gained about the structure of the various levels of this language, the categories discovered, the nomenclature and symbology developed in the linguistic analysis of a living visual language will surely expedite the investigation of other gesture languages including the ‘sign-talk’ of the American frontier. Valade’s studies began with lexicography, but he also makes some interesting observations on the syntax of the natural language of signs. Like all the l’Épée school of grammarians, he is able to get sufficiently outside his own language to compare sign language with French, Latin, and English grammar objectively. For example, he states that the syntax of sign language has no need for the copula in such statements as ‘the corn is green’ or ‘the girl is beautiful’ because the visual juxtaposition of the signs for substantive and adjective serves the same purpose. Such analysis is far superior to the conclusions sometimes encountered that the language of signs has no grammar or syntax, or that the absence of systems of verb inflection argues a defect in the language or an abnormal psychology of the user traceable to his aural deficiency. On the other hand Valade’s conviction, shared by later French and American writers, that the order of signs in an utterance is closer than that of French or English to the ‘natural’ order of occurrence or importance will not bear scrutiny. A different treatment of signs is given in the final portion of Pelissier’s L’enseignement primarire des sourds-muets mis a` la portée de tout le monde avec une iconogprahic des signes (Paris, 1856). Here he gives some four hundred drawings with dotted lines and arrows to show movement, each captioned with the French word it renders. These are now being transcribed in the system of notation introduced in the present study by the writer’s associates (0.3 below); and studies of their structural and semantic relation to present signs are contemplated. All the French writers on sign language so far reviewed are primarily educators of the deaf; l’Épée, Sicard, Bébian, and Valade are grammarians as well. Pelissier, however, writes less for the theoreticians of grammar than for a new group that must be reckoned with. In a century a linguistic community had developed, and a committee composed of deaf adults instructed in the Parisian and similar French schools, and of interested hearing persons, were making their views felt in the linguistically complicated educational controversies. Their interest was in the use, the extension, and the public acceptance of their language, which from Pelissier’s iconography appears to be the ‘natural’ sign language with a difference. In 1856 this language retained some of the signs which SASLJ, Vol. 2, No. 2 – Fall/Winter 2018 18