SASLJ Vol. 2 No. 2 - Page 7

Revolution for Deaf People's Language Lillo-Martin A commentary on Stokoe's 1960 manuscript, "Sign Language Structure" The Start of a Revolution for Deaf People's Language Diane Lillo-Martin University of Connecticut The publication of Stokoe’s “Sign Language Structure” in 1960 started a sort of revolution, as described by David F. Armstrong in his preface to the 2005 reprinting in the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. It was revolutionary in its explicit recognition that the ‘visual communication systems’ used by deaf Americans constituted a language and could be analyzed using the tools of linguistics. This view was not by any means commonly held, and it took quite some time for the news to spread. Now, informed linguists would not resist the label ‘language’, even though many still are misinformed or at least naïve about central aspects of signed languages. Nevertheless, many in related fields are surprised or even suspicious of this conclusion, and many who will accept the term ‘language’ still view signing as second class. So it has been a gradual revolution; not a flash of modernity but a slow burn that has led to a long sequence of changes in the world. Setting William Stokoe was perhaps an unlikely pioneer for establishing the linguistic status of signed languages. He studied Old and Middle English literature, and taught in this field at Wells College before being recruited to Gallaudet College (see Ruth Stokoe’s and Gilbert Eastman’s chapters in Baker and Battison, 1980 for more of the personal story). He became interested in linguistics, and received 6 weeks of training at Buffalo, where the approach to linguistics was Structuralism. On this approach, when a researcher starts to analyze a previously unstudied language, they start at the level of phonology, looking at the patterns of the sounds that comprise words. If two different words are found that are exactly the same except for one sound, the existence of such a minimal pair establishes the contrastiveness of the differing sounds. After all the sound patterns are discovered, the ‘Discovery Procedures’ allow the researcher to move to the next step of analysis. This approach to linguistic analysis drove Stokoe’s primary research investigating the signs used by deaf students and colleagues at Gallaudet, and led to the basic discovery that signs have parts. Stokoe could not do this research alone. He acknowledged primarily the contributions of deaf research assistants Carl Gustaf Croneberg and Dorothy Chiyoko Sueoka (later Casterline), who he credited “might as easily be named co-authors”; indeed, they were named as co-authors when the Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles was published 5 years later (Stokoe, Casterline & Croneberg, 1965). Not only did Croneberg and Sueoka provide and code data, they added insights that Stokoe quoted in the paper. Recognition of the role of deaf researchers in linguistics continues to be complex and uneven. SASLJ, Vol. 2, No. 2 – Fall/Winter 2018 7