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Hand Talk: Sign Language among American Indian Nations


American Indian nations of the Great Plains and cultural groups bordering this geographic area spoke so many different languages that verbal communication between them was difficult. As extensive trade networks developed and political alliances became necessary, an elegant language of the hands developed that cut across spoken language barriers. Though now endangered, this sign language continues to serve a vital role in traditional storytelling, rituals, legends, prayers, conversational narratives, and as a ...

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American Indian nations of the Great Plains and cultural groups bordering this geographic area spoke so many different languages that verbal communication between them was difficult. As extensive trade networks developed and political alliances became necessary, an elegant language of the hands developed that cut across spoken language barriers. Though now endangered, this sign language continues to serve a vital role in traditional storytelling, rituals, legends, prayers, conversational narratives, and as a primary language of American Indians who are deaf. This volume contains the most current descriptions of all levels of the language from phonology to discourse, as well as comparisons with other sign languages. A website accompanying the book contains rare photographs, illustrations, and films - offering readers the opportunity to view the sign language being described. This is the first work of its kind to be produced in more than a century, and is intended for students of sign language as well as those wishing to learn more about American Indian languages and cultures.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
'With its very comprehensive account of the study and structure of Plains Indian Sign Language, with the valuable links that it provides to sign languages used by deaf people and with its accompanying website, this volume is a wonderful and timely resource.' Ceil Lucas, Gallaudet University

'This is not just another book! It is a riveting narrative of an endangered Native American sign language that has served an essential role in Native American culture and life. For sign language studies, Native American studies, linguistics, anthropology, and a host of other allied professionals, as well as for the American public, Jeff Davis has made a momentous professional and social contribution. This is a landmark work that deserves the widest professional and popular audience.' Walt Wolfram, North Carolina State University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521690300
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 9/6/2010
  • Pages: 274
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey E. Davis is Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Tennessee.

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Table of Contents

List of figures x

List of diagrams xiii

List of tables xiv

Preface xv

Acknowledgements xxiii

List of tribal delegates at the Indian Sign Language Council, 1930 xxvii

Notational conventions xxviii

1 The language landscape 1

1.1 Introduction 1

1.2 The expanse of Native North America 1

1.3 Endangered languages 2

1.4 Issues of naming 3

1.5 North American Indian signed language 5

1.6 Frequently asked questions 12

1.7 PISL today 15

1.8 Summary 17

2 Earliest historical linguistic accounts 18

2.1 Spanish explorers 18

2.2 Question of origins 19

2.3 Nineteenth-century explorations to the west 21

2.4 Earliest published lexical descriptions 22

2.5 The natural language of signs 23

2.6 Questions of historical sign language contact 24

2.7 Martha's Vineyard Sign Language 25

2.8 The consequences of industrialization 27

2.9 Early descriptions of American Sign Language 27

3 A national treasure 30

3.1 The Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology 31

3.2 The National Anthropological Archives 31

3.3 Civil War Reconstruction 33

3.4 Custer's Last Stand 39

3.5 A calendar of the Dakota nation 40

3.6 Mallery takes a controversial stand 41

3.7 Shifting paradigms 44

3.8 Discussion and summary 47

3.9 Mallery's life and research: a historical and cultural chronology 48

4 Early sign language studies 51

4.1 Mallery's early publications on Indian Sign Language 53

4.2 Collaborators 54

4.3 Walter James Hoffman (1846-1899) 55

4.4 The language of signs 58

4.5 Mallery's theory of signs 59

4.6 The emergent discipline of anthropology 64

4.7 Ban on the subject of language origins 66

4.8 The campaign against sign language 67

4.9 Summary 69

5 The spectrum of discourse: from ceremonial to conversational 72

5.1 The Indian Sign Language Council, 1930 72

5.2 Film dictionary of Indian Sign Language 78

5.3 Sanderville's narratives 80

5.4 White Horse's narrative 81

5.5 Analysis of discourse genres 83

5.6 Summary 84

6 The convergence of anthropology and linguistics 85

6.1 The lineage of Franz Boas 85

6.2 Early anthropological linguistic fieldwork 86

6.3 The arbitrary-iconic continuum: issues of language transparency 87

6.4 The findings of LaMont West 90

6.5 The emergence of sign language linguistics 95

6.6 Summary 97

7 Comparative studies of historical linguistic relatedness 99

7.1 Research aims 100

7.2 The comparative method of linguistic reconstruction 101

7.3 Cross-linguistic studies of signed languages 102

7.4 Thresholds of historical relatedness 107

7.5 North American Indian Sign Language corpus 109

7.6 Preliminary studies 122

7.7 PISL and ASL lexical similarity 124

7.8 Discussion of results and implications 127

7.9 Summary, conclusion, and future research 129

8 Linguistic analysis of PISL 133

8.1 Phonology and phonetics 133

8.2 Morphology 140

8.3 PISL pronouns 150

8.4 Constructed action or dialogue 151

8.5 Syntax 153

8.6 The lexicon 160

8.7 Semantics 167

8.8 Summary of findings 169

9 Conclusions 171

9.1 PISL yesterday, today, and tomorrow 171

9.2 PISL compared with other signed languages 174

9.3 Emergent sign systems 176

9.4 The question of language youth 178

9.5 Types of sign language communities 179

9.6 Taxonomy of signed communication systems 180

9.7 Comparison of sign language types 183

9.8 Gesture studies 184

9.9 Conclusion 186

Appendix 1 Myths about sign language 188

Appendix 2 Sample annotations of signs featured in the illustrations 191

Appendix 3 Introductions to films of the 1930 Indian Sign Language Council: transcription and translations 197

Glossary of key terms 202

Notes 210

References 225

Index 240

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2011

    A must read for linguists and other language lovers!

    Jeffrey Davis has brought much needed attention to a language which once spanned parts of the United States, Canada, and Mexico with Hand Talk, a book that examines the history, use, and linguistics of a signed lingua franca known as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL). The author draws on many years of personal research (obtained from sources ranging from present-day PISL speakers to videos and photographs obtained from the Smithsonian) to create this compelling account of a language that until now has been largely ignored.

    Hand Talk is simultaneously accessible and revolutionary. It is written in a format which is accessible to those who do not have a background in Linguistics while providing insights into a socially, historically, and linguistically important unparalleled signed lingua franca. Linguists, cultural anthropologists, and other stakeholders in this field will appreciate the steadfastness of Davis¿s research and his commitment to this endeavor. Due to support from the National Science Foundation, Davis was able to conduct fieldwork and lead a workshop with both Deaf and hearing PISL signers on the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Busby, Montana. The experiences lend credibility and richness to his work, and allowed him access to thousands of signs which he has analyzed for semantic, syntactic and paralinguistic features using a language coding software known as ELAN. All of his data is viewable at his website (insert link here), and can be enjoyed by both the Deaf and hearing, as PISL signs are coded for both ASL and English.

    Hand Talk is sure to bring recognition to a language which has remained academically buried for over half a century. This is crucial for tribal members of the American Indian nations that use PISL as well as academics (particularly in the fields of Cultural Anthropology and Sociolinguistics) because this publication has the ability to shed light on the best practices for preserving and revitalizing this endangered language. Even those who are not members of these nations or disciplines will appreciate gaining insight into an understudied language and will find it an excellent talking piece in literary circles.

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