“That’s the problem with the history of sign language: It’s ephemeral,” said Nora Groce, a medical anthropologist at University College London. “It’s not like a written language where you can go back 3,000 years.”
In the 1970s, Groce, then a graduate student at Brown University, spent three years traveling back and forth from Martha’s Vineyard to interview the island’s oldest residents for her book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language. Even then, much of the language was already lost: “We had vestiges of it, a few gestures,” she said, but “I couldn’t have reconstructed it.”
At the time Groce began her research, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language had been in decline for nearly a century. In part, it was because the isolation of Chilmark, and the island overall, had eroded—infrastructure improvements made it easier to travel from town to town, and the tourism industry, which took hold in the late 1800s, had broken down barriers between the island and the mainland.
It was a change that allowed for new genes, but also for new ideas—and on the mainland, the concept of deaf education was beginning to take hold. In 1817, the American School for the Deaf—the first of its kind in the U.S.—opened in Hartford, Connecticut, laying the groundwork for the development of a national sign language. The school in its earliest years was a Babel of gestures: Some students came from communities like Martha’s Vineyard that had developed their own languages; others had made up systems of signing within their households; the school’s first teacher, Laurent Clerc, used the standardized French Sign Language. Eventually, these three strains merged into what would become American Sign Language, supplanting the regional languages.
Most of those languages vanished, but the formation of American Sign Language gives some clues as to how they had developed in the first place. In the 1910s and ‘20s, the National Association of the Deaf recorded sign language on film in response to the threat of oralism, the idea that deaf people should be educated primarily in spoken language.
“When moving-picture technology came out, the deaf community rallied around that and saw that as the perfect way to preserve sign language,” said Patricia Clark, an American Sign Language professor at the University of Rochester. The nascent national language survived, but the precautionary effort left researchers with a firsthand look at its evolution. “We have examples of signers from the second generation of ASL to the fourth generation on the films, records from way back when, so we’ve been able to study how the language changed between those generations”:
The patterns go from people using lexical phrases, where you combine three or four signs together to express one concept or one word. These lexical phrases become reduced over time through generations, become more compact, and eventually look as if they are a single word or a single sign.
Worldwide, there are still some insular communities that have retained their own sign languages, one of the most well-known being the El-Sayed Bedouin tribe in Israel. But by and large, Groce said, today’s regional sign languages can no longer be studied as systems that evolved in isolation; often, they’re hybrids of older community-sign systems, emerging standardized national languages, and sometime global influence. “For example, in a country like Mozambique, which is Portuguese-speaking, you’d think the sign language there would be related to Portuguese sign language,” she said. But the deaf in Mozambique speak something closer to Finnish sign language, a relic from the presence of Finnish missionaries in the mid-1900s.
“Signs are not arbitrary. They have a history to them,” Groce said. But “the history of a sign language is going to be complex and unknown. And a lot of it is going to be unknowable.”