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Sign language among North American Indians
By Garrick Mallery
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
During the past two years the present writer has devoted the intervals between official duties to collecting and collating materials for the study of sign language. As the few publications on the general subject, possessing more than historic interest, are meager in details and vague in expression, original investigation has been necessary. The high development of communication by gesture among the tribes of North America, and its continued extensive use by many of them, naturally directed the first researches to that continent, with the result that a large body of facts procured from collaborators and by personal examination has now been gathered and classified. A correspondence has also been established with many persons in other parts of the world whose character and situation rendered it probable that they would contribute valuable information. The success of that correspondence has been as great as could have been expected, considering that most of the persons addressed were at distant points sometimes not easily accessible by mail. As the collection of facts is still successfully proceeding, not only with reference to foreign peoples and to deaf-mutes everywhere, but also among some American tribes not yet thoroughly examined in this respect, no exposition of the subject pretending to be complete can yet be made. In complying, therefore, with the request to prepare the present paper, it is necessary to explain to correspondents and collaborators whom it may reach, that this is not the comprehensive publication by the Bureau of Ethnology for which their assistance has been solicited. With this explanation some of those who have already forwarded contributions will not be surprised at their omission, and others will not desist from the work in which they are still kindly engaged, under the impression that its results will not be received in time to meet with welcome and credit. On the contrary, the urgent appeal for aid before addressed to officers of the Army and Navy of this and other nations, to missionaries, travelers, teachers of deaf-mutes, and philologists generally, is now with equal urgency repeated. It is, indeed, hoped that the continued presentation of the subject to persons either having opportunity for observation or the power to favor with suggestions may, by awakening some additional interest in it, secure new collaboration from localities still unrepresented.
It will be readily understood by other readers that, as the limits assigned to this paper permit the insertion of but a small part of the material already collected and of the notes of study made upon that accumulation, it can only show the general scope of the work undertaken, and not its accomplishment. Such extracts from the collection have been selected as were regarded as most illustrative, and they are preceded by a discussion perhaps sufficient to be suggestive, though by no means exhaustive, and designed to be for popular, rather than for scientific use. In short, the direction to submit a progress-report and not a monograph has been complied with.
DIVISIONS OF GESTURE SPEECH.
These are corporeal motion and facial expression. An attempt has been made by some writers to discuss these general divisions separately, and its success would be practically convenient if it were always understood that their connection is so intimate that they can never be altogether severed. A play of feature, whether instinctive or voluntary, accentuates and qualifies all motions intended to serve as signs, and strong instinctive facial expression is generally accompanied by action of the body or some of its members. But, so far as a distinction can be made, expressions of the features are the result of emotional, and corporeal gestures, of intellectual action. The former in general and the small number of the latter that are distinctively emotional are nearly identical among men from physiological causes which do not affect with the same similarity the processes of thought. The large number of corporeal gestures expressing intellectual operations require and admit of more variety and conventionality. Thus the features and the body among all mankind act almost uniformly in exhibiting fear, grief, surprise, and shame, but all objective conceptions are varied and variously portrayed. Even such simple indications as those for "no" and "eyes" appear in several differing motions. While, therefore, the terms sign language and gesture speech necessarily include and suppose facial expression when emotions are in question, they refer more particularly to corporeal motions and attitudes. For this reason much of the valuable contribution of DARWIN in his Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is not directly applicable to sign language. His analysis of emotional gestures into those explained on the principles of serviceable associated habits, of antithesis, and of the constitution of the nervous system, should, nevertheless, always be remembered. Even if it does not strictly embrace the class of gestures which form the subject of this paper, and which often have an immediate pantomimic origin, the earliest gestures were doubtless instinctive and generally emotional, preceding pictorial, metaphoric, and, still subsequent, conventional gestures even, as, according to DARWIN'S cogent reasoning, they preceded articulate speech.
While the distinction above made between the realm of facial play and that of motions of the body, especially those of the arms and hands, is sufficiently correct for use in discussion, it must be admitted that the features do express intellect as well as emotion. The well-known saying of Charles Lamb that "jokes came in with the candles" is in point, but the most remarkable example of conveying detailed information without the use of sounds, hands, or arms, is given by the late President T. H. Gallaudet, the distinguished instructor of deaf-mutes, which, to be intelligible, requires to be quoted at length:
"One day, our distinguished and lamented historical painter, Col. John Trumbull, was in my school-room during the hours of instruction, and, on my alluding to the tact which the pupil referred to had of read ing my face, he expressed a wish to see it tried. I requested him to select any event in Greek, Roman, English, or American history of a scenic character, which would make a striking picture on canvas, and said I would endeavor to communicate it to the lad. 'Tell him,' said he, 'that Brutus (Lucius Junius) condemned his two sons to death for resisting his authority and violating his orders.'
"I folded my arms in front of me, and kept them in that position, to preclude the possibility of making any signs or gestures, or of spelling any words on my fingers, and proceeded, as best I could, by the expression of my countenance, and a few motions of my head and attitudes of the body, to convey the picture in my own mind to the mind of my pupil.
"It ought to be stated that he was already acquainted with the fact, being familiar with the leading events in Roman history. But when I began, he knew not from what portion of history, sacred or profane, ancient or modern, the fact was selected. From this wide range, my delineation on the one hand and his ingenuity on the other had to bring it within the division of Roman history, and, still more minutely, to the particular individual and transaction designated by Colonel Trumbull. In carrying on the process, I made no use whatever of any arbitrary, conventional look, motion, or attitude, before settled between us, by which to let him understand what I wished to communicate, with the exception of a single one, if, indeed, it ought to be considered such.
"The usual sign, at that time, among the teachers and pupils, for a Roman, was portraying an aquiline nose by placing the fore-finger, crooked, in front of the nose. As I was prevented from using my finger in this way, and having considerable command over the muscles of my face, I endeavored to give my nose as much of the aquiline form as possible, and succeeded well enough for my purposes. * * *
"The outlines of the process were the following:
"A stretching and stretching gaze eastward, with an undulating motion of the head, as if looking across and beyond the Atlantic Ocean, to denote that the event happened, not on the western, but eastern continent. This was making a little progress, as it took the subject out of the range of American history.
"A turning of the eyes upward and backward, with frequently-repeated motions of the head backward, as if looking a great way back in past time, to denote that the event was one of ancient date.
"The aquiline shape of the nose, already referred to, indicating that a Roman was the person concerned. It was, of course, an old Roman.
"Portraying, as well as I could, by my countenance, attitude, and manner an individual high in authority, and commanding others, as if he expected to be obeyed.
"Looking and acting as if I were giving out a specific order to many persons, and threatening punishment on those who should resist my authority, even the punishment of death.
"Here was a pause in the progress of events, which I denoted by sleeping as it were during the night and awakening in the morning, and doing this several times, to signify that several days had elapsed.
"Looking with deep interest and surprise, as if at a single person brought and standing before me, with an expression of countenance indicating that he had violated the order which I had given, and that I knew it. Then looking in the same way at another person near him as also guilty. Two offending persons were thus denoted.
"Exhibiting serious deliberation, then hesitation, accompanied with strong conflicting emotions, producing perturbation, as if I knew not how to feel or what to do.
"Looking first at one of the persons before me, and then at the other, and then at both together, as a father would look, indicating his distressful parental feelings under such afflicting circumstances.
"Composing my feelings, showing that a change was coming over me, and exhibiting towards the imaginary persons before me the decided look of the inflexible commander, who was determined and ready to order them away to execution. Looking and acting as if the tender and forgiving feelings of the father had again got the ascendency, and as if I was about to relent and pardon them.
"These alternating states of mind I portrayed several times, to make my representations the more graphic and impressive.
"At length the father yields, and the stern principle of justice, as expressed in my countenance and manners, prevails. My look and action denote the passing of the sentence of death on the offenders, and the ordering them away to execution.
* * *
"He quickly turned round to his slate and wrote a correct and complete account of this story of Brutus and his two sons."
While it appears that the expressions of the features are not confined to the emotions or to distinguishing synonyms, it must be remembered that the meaning of the same motion of hands, arms, and fingers is often modified, individualized, or accentuated by associated facial changes and postures of the body not essential to the sign, which emotional changes and postures are at once the most difficult to describe and the most interesting when intelligently reported, not only because they infuse life into the skeleton sign, but because they may belong to the class of innate expressions.
THE ORIGIN OF SIGN LANGUAGE.
In observing the maxim that nothing can be thoroughly understood unless its beginning is known, it becomes necessary to examine into the origin of sign language through its connection with that of oral speech. In this examination it is essential to be free from the vague popular impression that some oral language, of the general character of that now used among mankind, is "natural" to mankind. It will be admitted on reflection that all oral languages were at some past time far less serviceable to those using them than they are now, and as each particular language has been thoroughly studied it has become evident that it grew out of some other and less advanced form. In the investigation of these old forms it has been so difficult to ascertain how any of them first became a useful instrument of intercommunication that many conflicting theories on this subject have been advocated.
Oral language consists of variations and mutations of vocal sounds produced as signs of thought and emotion. But it is not enough that those signs should be available as the vehicle of the producer's own thoughts. They must be also efficient for the communication of such thoughts to others. It has been, until of late years, generally held that thought was not possible without oral language, and that, as man was supposed to have possessed from the first the power of thought, he also from the first possessed and used oral language substantially as at present. That the latter, as a special faculty, formed the main distinction between man and the brutes has been and still is the prevailing doctrine. In a lecture delivered before the British Association in 1878 it was declared that "animal intelligence is unable to elaborate that class of abstract ideas, the formation of which depends upon the faculty of speech." If instead of "speech" the word "utterance" had been used, as including all possible modes of intelligent communication, the statement might pass without criticism. But it may be doubted if there is any more necessary connection between abstract ideas and sounds, the mere signs of thought, that strike the ear, than there is between the same ideas and signs addressed only to the eye.
The point most debated for centuries has been, not whether there was any primitive oral language, but what that language was. Some literalists have indeed argued from the Mosaic narrative that because the Creator, by one supernatural act, with the express purpose to form separate peoples, had divided all tongues into their present varieties, and could, by another similar exercise of power, obliterate all but one which should be universal, the fact that he had not exercised that power showed it not to be his will that any man to whom a particular speech had been given should hold intercourse with another miraculously set apart from him by a different speech. By this reasoning, if the study of a foreign tongue was not impious, it was at least clear that the primitive language had been taken away as a disciplinary punishment, as the Paradisiac Eden had been earlier lost, and that, therefore, the search for it was as fruitiess as to attempt the passage of the flaming sword. More liberal Christians have been disposed to regard the Babel story as allegorical, if not mythical, and have considered it to represent the disintegration of tongues out of one which was primitive. In accordance with the advance of linguistic science they have successively shifted back the postulated primitive tongue from Hebrew to Sanscrit, then to Aryan, and now seek to evoke from the vasty deeps of antiquity the ghosts of other rival claimants for precedence in dissolution. As, however, the languages of man are now recognized as extremely numerous, and as the very sounds of which these several languages are composed are so different that the speakers of some are unable to distinguish with the ear certain sounds in others, still less able to reproduce them, the search for one common parent language is more difficult than was supposed by mediaeval ignorance.
The discussion is now, however, varied by the suggested possibility that man at some time may have existed without any oral language. It is conceded by some writers that mental images or representations can be formed without any connection with sound, and may at least serve for thought, though not for expression. It is certain that concepts, however formed, can be expressed by other means than sound. One mode of this expression is by gesture, and there is less reason to believe that gestures commenced as the interpretation of, or substitute for words than that the latter originated in, and served to translate gestures. Many arguments have been advanced to prove that gesture language preceded articulate speech and formed the earliest attempt at communication, resulting from the interacting subjective and objective conditions to which primitive man was exposed. Some of the facts on which deductions have been based, made in accordance with well-established modes of scientific research from study of the lower animals, children, idiots, the lower types of mankind, and deaf-mutes, will be briefly mentioned.
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