Gestures in Sign Language

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Gestures of Lower Animals

Emotional expression in the features of man is to be considered in reference to the fact that the special senses either have their seat in, or are in close relation to the face, and that so large a number of nerves pass to it from the brain. The same is true of the lower animals, so that it would be inferred, as is the case, that the faces of those animals are also expressive of emotion. There is also noticed among them an exhibition of emotion by corporeal action. This is the class of gestures common to them with the earliest made by man, as above mentioned, and it is reasonable to suppose that those were made by man at the time when, if ever, he was, like the animals, destitute of articulate speech. The articulate cries uttered by some animals, especially some birds, are interesting as connected with the principle of imitation to which languages in part owe their origin, but in the cases of forced imitation, the mere acquisition of a vocal trick, they only serve to illustrate that power of imitation, and are without significance. Sterne’s starling, after his cage had been opened, would have continued to complain that he could not get out. If the bird had uttered an instinctive cry of distress when in confinement and a note of joy on release, there would have been a nearer approach to language than if it had clearly pronounced many sentences. Such notes and cries of animals, many of which are connected with reproduction and nutrition, are well worth more consideration than can now be given, but regarding them generally it is to be questioned if they are so expressive as the gestures of the same animals. It is contended that the bark of a dog is distinguishable into fear, defiance, invitation, and a note of warning, but it also appears that those notes have been known only since the animal has been domesticated. The gestures of the dog are far more readily distinguished than his bark, as in his preparing for attack, or caressing his master, resenting an injury, begging for food, or simply soliciting attention. The chief modern use of his tail appears to be to express his ideas and sensations. But some recent experiments of Prof. A. Graham Bell, no less eminent from his work in artificial speech than in telephones, shows that animals are more physically capable of pronouncing articulate sounds than has been supposed. He informed the writer that he recently succeeded by manipulation in causing an English terrier to form a number of the sounds of our letters, and particularly brought out from it the words “How are you, Grandmamma?” with distinctness. This tends to prove that only absence of brain power has kept animals from acquiring true speech. The remarkable vocal instrument of the parrot could be used in significance as well as in imitation, if its brain had been developed beyond the point of expression by gesture, in which latter the bird is expert.

The gestures of monkeys, whose hands and arms can be used, are nearly akin to ours. Insects communicate with each other almost entirely by means of the antennae. Animals in general which, though not deaf, can not be taught by sound, frequently have been by signs, and probably all of them understand man’s gestures better than his speech. They exhibit signs to one another with obvious intention, and they also have often invented them as a means of obtaining their wants from man.

Gestures of Young Children

The wishes and emotions of very young children are conveyed in a small number of sounds, but in a great variety of gestures and facial expressions. A child’s gestures are intelligent long in advance of speech; although very early and persistent attempts are made to give it instruction in the latter but none in the former, from the time when it begins risu cognoscere matrem. It learns words only as they are taught, and learns them through the medium of signs which are not expressly taught. Long after familiarity with speech, it consults the gestures and facial expressions of its parents and nurses as if seeking thus to translate or explain their words. These facts are important in reference to the biologic law that the order of development of the individual is the same as that of the species.

Among the instances of gestures common to children throughout the world is that of protruding the lips, or pouting, when somewhat angry or sulky. The same gesture is now made by the anthropoid apes and is found strongly marked in the savage tribes of man. It is noticed by evolutionists that animals retain during early youth, and subsequently lose, characters once possessed by their progenitors when adult, and still retained by distinct species nearly related to them.

The fact is not, however, to be ignored that children invent words as well as signs with as natural an origin for the one as for the other. An interesting case was furnished to the writer by Prof. Bell of an infant boy who used a combination of sounds given as “nyum-nyum,” an evident onomatope of gustation, to mean “good,” and not only in reference to articles of food relished but as applied to persons of whom the child was fond, rather in the abstract idea of “niceness” in general. It is a singular coincidence that a bright young girl, a friend of the writer, in a letter describing a juvenile feast, invented the same expression, with nearly the same spelling, as characteristic of her sensations regarding the delicacies provided. The Papuans met by Dr. Comrie also called “eating” nam-nam. But the evidence of all such cases of the voluntary use of articulate speech by young children is qualified by the fact that it has been inherited from very many generations, if not quite so long as the faculty of gesture.

Gestures in Mental Disorder

The insane understand and obey gestures when they have no knowledge whatever of words. It is also found that semi-idiotic children who cannot be taught more than the merest rudiments of speech, can receive a considerable amount of information through signs, and can express themselves by them. Sufferers from aphasia continue to use appropriate gestures after their words have become uncontrollable. It is further noticeable in them that mere ejaculations, or sounds which are only the result of a state of feeling, instead of a desire to express thought, are generally articulated with accuracy. Patients who have been in the habit of swearing preserve their fluency in that division of their vocabulary.

Uninstructed Deaf-Mutes

The signs made by congenital and uninstructed deaf-mutes to be now considered are either strictly natural signs, invented by themselves, or those of a colloquial character used by such mutes where associated. The accidental or merely suggestive signs peculiar to families, one member of which happens to be a mute, are too much affected by the other members of the family to be of certain value. Those, again, which are taught in institutions have become conventional and designedly adapted to translation into oral speech, although founded by the abbé de l’Épée, followed by the abbé Sicard, in the natural signs first above mentioned.

A great change has doubtless occurred in the estimation of congenital deaf-mutes since the Justinian Code, which consigned them forever to legal infancy, as incapable of intelligence, and classed them with the insane. Yet most modern writers, for instance Archbishop Whately and Max Müller, have declared that deaf-mutes could not think until after having been instructed. It cannot be denied that the deaf-mute thinks after his instruction either in the ordinary gesture signs or in the finger alphabet, or more lately in artificial speech. By this instruction he has become master of a highly-developed language, such as English or French, which he can read, write, and actually talk, but that foreign language he has obtained through the medium of signs. This is a conclusive proof that signs constitute a real language and one which admits of thought, for no one can learn a foreign language unless he had some language of his own, whether by descent or acquisition, by which it could be translated, and such translation into the new language could not even be commenced unless the mind had been already in action and intelligently using the original language for that purpose. In fact the use by deaf-mutes of signs originating in themselves exhibits a creative action of mind and innate faculty of expression beyond that of ordinary speakers who acquired language without conscious effort. The thanks of students, both of philology and psychology, are due to Prof. Samuel Porter, of the National Deaf Mute College, for his response to the question, “Is thought possible without language?” published in the Princeton Review for January, 1880.

With regard to the sounds uttered by deaf-mutes, the same explanation of heredity may be made as above, regarding the words invented by young children. Congenital deaf-mutes at first make the same sounds as hearing children of the same age, and, often being susceptible to vibrations of the air, are not suspected of being deaf. When that affliction is ascertained to exist, all oral utterances from the deaf-mute are habitually repressed by the parents.

Gestures of the Blind

The facial expressions and gestures of the congenitally blind are worthy of attention. The most interesting and conclusive examples come from the case of Laura Bridgman, who, being also deaf, could not possibly have derived them by imitation. When a letter from a beloved friend was communicated to her by gesture-language, she laughed and clapped her hands. A roguish expression was given to her face, concomitant with the emotion, by her holding the lower lip by the teeth. She blushed, shrugged her shoulders, turned in her elbows, and raised her eye-brows under the same circumstances as other people. In amazement, she rounded and protruded the lips, opened them, and breathed strongly. It is remarkable that she constantly accompanied her “yes” with the common affirmative nod, and her “no” with our negative shake of the head, as these gestures are by no means universal and do not seem clearly connected with emotion. This, possibly, may be explained by the fact that her ancestors for many generations had used these gestures. A similar curious instance is mentioned by Cardinal Wiseman (Essays, III, 547, London, 1853) of an Italian blind man, the appearance of whose eyes indicated that he had never enjoyed sight, and who yet made the same elaborate gestures made by the people with whom he lived, but which had been used by them immemorially, as correctly as if he had learned them by observation.

Loss of Speech by Isolation

When human beings have been long in solitary confinement, been abandoned, or otherwise have become isolated from their fellows, they have lost speech either partially or entirely, and required to have it renewed through gestures. There are also several recorded cases of children, born with all their faculties, who, after having been lost or abandoned, have been afterwards found to have grown up possessed of acute hearing, but without anything like human speech. One of these was Peter, “the Wild Boy,” who was found in the woods of Hanover in 1726, and taken to England, where vain attempts were made to teach him language, though he lived to the age of seventy. Another was a boy of twelve, found in the forest of Aveyron, in France, about the beginning of this century, who was destitute of speech, and all efforts to teach him failed. Some of these cases are to be considered in connection with the general law of evolution, that in degeneration the last and highest acquirements are lost first. When in these the effort at acquiring or re-acquiring speech has been successful, it has been through gestures, in the same manner as missionaries, explorers, and shipwrecked mariners have become acquainted with tongues before unknown to themselves and sometimes to civilization. All persons in such circumstances are obliged to proceed by pointing to objects and making gesticulations, at the same time observing what articulate sounds were associated with those motions by the persons addressed, and thus vocabularies and lists of phrases were formed.

Low Tribes of Man

Apart from the establishment of a systematic language of signs under special circumstances which have occasioned its development, the gestures of the lower tribes of men may be generally classed under the emotional or instinctive division, which can be correlated with those of the lower animals. This may be illustrated by the modes adopted to show friendship in salutation, taking the place of our shaking hands. Some Pacific Islanders used to show their joy at meeting friends by sniffing at them, after the style of well-disposed dogs. The Fuegians pat and slap each other, and some Polynesians stroke their own faces with the hand or foot of the friend. The practice of rubbing or pressing noses is very common. It has been noticed in the Lapland Alps, often in Africa, and in Australia the tips of the noses are pressed a long time, accompanied with grunts of satisfaction. Patting and stroking different parts of the body are still more frequent, and prevailed among the North American Indians, though with the latter the most common expression was hugging. In general, the civilities exchanged are similar to those of many animals.

Gestures as an Occasional Resource

Persons of limited vocabulary, whether foreigners to the tongue employed or native, but not accomplished in its use, even in the midst of a civilization where gestures are deprecated, when at fault for words resort instinctively to physical motions that are not wild nor meaningless, but picturesque and significant, though perhaps made by the gesturer for the first time. An uneducated laborer, if good-natured enough to be really desirous of responding to a request for information, when he has exhausted his scanty stock of words will eke them out by original gestures. While fully admitting the advice to Coriolanus— -

Action is eloquence, and the eyes of the ignorant
More learned than the ears— -

t may be paraphrased to read that the hands of the ignorant are more learned than their tongues. A stammerer, too, works his arms and features as if determined to get his thoughts out, in a manner not only suggestive of the physical struggle, but of the use of gestures as a hereditary expedient.

Gestures of Fluent Talkers

The same is true of the most fluent talkers on occasions when the exact vocal formula desired does not at once suggest itself, or is unsatisfactory without assistance from the physical machinery not embraced in the oral apparatus. The command of a copious vocabulary common to both speaker and hearer undoubtedly tends to a phlegmatic delivery and disdain of subsidiary aid. An excited speaker will, however, generally make a free use of his hands without regard to any effect of that use upon auditors. Even among the gesture-hating English, when they are aroused from torpidity of manner, the hands are involuntarily clapped in approbation, rubbed with delight, wrung in distress, raised in astonishment, and waved in triumph. The fingers are snapped for contempt, the forefinger is vibrated to reprove or threaten, and the fist shaken in defiance. The brow is contracted with displeasure, and the eyes winked to show connivance. The shoulders are shrugged to express disbelief or repugnance, the eyebrows elevated with surprise, the lips bitten in vexation and thrust out in sullenness or displeasure, while a higher degree of anger is shown by a stamp of the foot. Quintilian, regarding the subject, however, not as involuntary exhibition of feeling and intellect, but for illustration and enforcement, becomes eloquent on the variety of motions of which the hands alone are capable, as follows:

“The action of the other parts of the body assists the speaker, but the hands (I could almost say) speak themselves. By them do we not demand, promise, call, dismiss, threaten, supplicate, express abhorrence and terror, question and deny? Do we not by them express joy and sorrow, doubt, confession, repentance, measure, quantity, number, and time? Do they not also encourage, supplicate, restrain, convict, admire, respect? and in pointing out places and persons do they not discharge the office of adverbs and of pronouns?”

Voss adopts almost the words of Quintilian, “Manus non modo loquentem adjuvant, sed ipsæ pene loqui videntur,” while Cresollius calls the hand “the minister of reason and wisdom … without it there is no eloquence.”

Involuntary Response to Gestures

Further evidence of the unconscious survival of gesture language is afforded by the ready and involuntary response made in signs to signs when a man with the speech and habits of civilization is brought into close contact with Indians or deaf-mutes. Without having ever before seen or made one of their signs, he will soon not only catch the meaning of theirs, but produce his own, which they will likewise comprehend, the power seemingly remaining latent in him until called forth by necessity.

Natural Pantomime

In the earliest part of man’s history the subjects of his discourse must have been almost wholly sensuous, and therefore readily expressed in pantomime. Not only was pantomime sufficient for all the actual needs of his existence, but it is not easy to imagine how he could have used language such as is now known to us. If the best English dictionary and grammar had been miraculously furnished to him, together with the art of reading with proper pronunciation, the gift would have been valueless, because the ideas expressed by the words had not yet been formed.

That the early concepts were of a direct and material character is shown by what has been ascertained of the roots of language, and there does not appear to be much difficulty in expressing by other than vocal instrumentality all that could have been expressed by those roots. Even now, with our vastly increased belongings of external life, avocations, and habits, nearly all that is absolutely necessary for our physical needs can be expressed in pantomime. Far beyond the mere signs for eating, drinking, sleeping, and the like, any one will understand a skillful representation in signs of a tailor, shoemaker, blacksmith, weaver, sailor, farmer, or doctor. So of washing, dressing, shaving, walking, driving, writing, reading, churning, milking, boiling, roasting or frying, making bread or preparing coffee, shooting, fishing, rowing, sailing, sawing, planing, boring, and, in short, an endless list.

Max Müller properly calls touch, scent, and taste the palaioteric, and sight and hearing the neoteric senses, the latter of which often require to be verified by the former. Touch is the lowest in specialization and development, and is considered to be the oldest of the senses, the others indeed being held by some writers to be only its modifications. Scent, of essential importance to many animals, has with man almost ceased to be of any, except in connection with taste, which he has developed to a high degree. Whether or not sight preceded hearing in order of development, it is difficult, in conjecturing the first attempts of man or his hypothetical ancestor at the expression either of percepts or concepts, to connect vocal sounds with any large number of objects, but it is readily conceivable that the characteristics of their forms and movements should have been suggested to the eye—fully exercised before the tongue—so soon as the arms and fingers became free for the requisite simulation or portrayal. There is little distinction between pantomime and a developed sign language, in which thought is transmitted rapidly and certainly from hand to eye as it is in oral speech from lips to ear; the former is, however, the parent of the latter, which is more abbreviated and less obvious. Pantomime acts movements, reproduces forms and positions, presents pictures, and manifests emotions with greater realization than any other mode of utterance. It may readily be supposed that a troglodyte man would desire to communicate the finding of a cave in the vicinity of a pure pool, circled with soft grass, and shaded by trees bearing edible fruit. No sound of nature is connected with any of those objects, but the position and size of the cave, its distance and direction, the water, its quality, and amount, the verdant circling carpet, and the kind and height of the trees could have been made known by pantomime in the days of the mammoth, if articulate speech had not then been established, as Indians or deaf-mutes now communicate similar information by the same agency.

The proof of this fact, as regards deaf-mutes, will hardly be demanded, as their expressive pantomime has been so often witnessed. That of the North American Indians, as distinct from the signs which are generally its abbreviations, has been frequently described in general terms, but it may be interesting to present two instances from remote localities.

A Maricopa Indian, in the present limits of Arizona, was offered an advantageous trade for his horse, whereupon he stretched himself on his horse’s neck, caressed it tenderly, at the same time shutting his eyes, meaning thereby that no offer could tempt him to part with his charger.

An A-tco-mâ-wi or Pit River Indian, in Northeastern California, to explain the cause of his cheeks and forehead being covered with tar, represented a man falling, and, despite his efforts to save him, trembling, growing pale (pointing from his face to that of a white man), and sinking to sleep, his spirit winging its way to the skies, which he indicated by imitating with his hands the flight of a bird upwards, his body sleeping still upon the river bank, to which he pointed. The tar upon his face was thus shown to be his dress of mourning for a friend who had fallen and died.

Several descriptions of pure pantomime, intermixed with the more conventionalized signs, will be found in the present paper. In especial, reference is made to the Address of Kin Chē-ĕss, Nátci’s Narrative, the Dialogue between Alaskan Indians, and Na-wa-gi-jig’s Story.



MLA Source Citation:

Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared with that Among Other Peoples and Deaf-Mutes. 1881 AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 21 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/gestures-in-sign-language.htm - Last updated on Jan 5th, 2014


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