Mode in Which Researches Have Been Made – Sign Language

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It is proper to give to all readers interested in the subject, but particularly to those whose collaboration for the more complete work above mentioned is solicited, an account of the mode in which the researches have thus far been conducted and in which it is proposed to continue them. After study of all that could be obtained in printed form, and a considerable amount of personal correspondence, the results were embraced in a pamphlet issued by the Bureau of Ethnology in the early part of 1880, entitled “Introduction to the Study of Sign Language among the North American Indians as Illustrating the Gesture Speech of Mankind.” In this, suggestions were made as to points and manner of observation and report, and forms prepared to secure uniformity and accuracy were explained, many separate sheets of which with the pamphlet were distributed, not only to all applicants, but to all known and accessible persons in this country and abroad who, there was reason to hope, would take sufficient interest in the undertaking to contribute their assistance. Those forms, Types of Hand Positions, Outlines of Arm Positions, and Examples, thus distributed, are reproduced at the end of this paper.

The main object of those forms was to eliminate the source of confusion produced by attempts of different persons at the difficult description of positions and motions. The comprehensive plan required that many persons should be at work in many parts of the world. It will readily be understood that if a number of persons should undertake to describe in words the same motions, whether of pantomimists on the stage or of other gesturers, even if the visual perception of all the observers should be the same in the apprehension of the particular gestures, their language in description might be so varied as to give very diverse impressions to a reader who had never seen the gestures described. But with a set form of expressions for the typical positions, and skeleton outlines to be filled up and, when necessary, altered in a uniform style, this source of confusion is greatly reduced. The graphic lines drawn to represent the positions and motions on the same diagrams will vary but little in comparison with the similar attempt of explanation in writing. Both modes of description were, however, requested, each tending to supplement and correct the other, and provision was also made for the notation of such striking facial changes or emotional postures as might individualize or accentuate the gestures. It was also pointed out that the prepared sheets could be used by cutting and pasting them in the proper order, for successive signs forming a speech or story, so as to exhibit the semiotic syntax. Attention was specially directed to the importance of ascertaining the intrinsic idea or conception of all signs, which it was urged should be obtained directly from the persons using them and not by inference.

In the autumn of 1880 the prompt and industrious co-operation of many observers in this country, and of a few from foreign lands, had supplied a large number of descriptions which were collated and collected into a quarto volume of 329 pages, called “A Collection of Gesture Signs and Signals of the North American Indians, with some comparisons.”

This was printed on sized paper with wide margins to allow of convenient correction and addition. It was not published, but was regarded as proof, a copy being sent to each correspondent with a request for his annotations, not only in revision of his own contribution, but for its comparison with those made by others. Even when it was supposed that mistakes had been made in either description or reported conception, or both, the contribution was printed as received, in order that a number of skilled and disinterested persons might examine it and thus ascertain the amount and character of error. The attention of each contributor was invited to the fact that, in some instances, a sign as described by one of the other contributors might be recognized as intended for the same idea or object as that furnished by himself, and the former might prove to be the better description. Each was also requested to examine if a peculiar abbreviation or fanciful flourish might not have induced a difference in his own description from that of another contributor with no real distinction either in conception or essential formation. All collaborators were therefore urged to be candid in admitting, when such cases occurred, that their own descriptions were mere unessential variants from others printed, otherwise to adhere to their own and explain the true distinction. When the descriptions showed substantial identity, they were united with the reference to all the authorities giving them.

Many of these copies have been returned with valuable annotations, not only of correction but of addition and suggestion, and are now being collated again into one general revision.

The above statement will, it is hoped, give assurance that the work of the Bureau of Ethnology has been careful and thorough. No scheme has been neglected which could be contrived and no labor has been spared to secure the accuracy and completeness of the publication still in preparation. It may also be mentioned that although the writer has made personal observations of signs, no description of any sign has been printed by him which rests on his authority alone. Personal controversy and individual bias were thus avoided. For every sign there is a special reference either to an author or to some one or more of the collaborators. While the latter have received full credit, full responsibility was also imposed, and that course will be continued.

No contribution has been printed which asserted that any described sign is used by “all Indians,” for the reason that such statement is not admissible evidence unless the authority had personally examined all Indians. If any credible person had affirmatively stated that a certain identical, or substantially identical, sign had been found by him, actually used by Abnaki, Absaroka, Arikara, Assiniboins, etc., going through the whole list of tribes, or any definite portion of that list, it would have been so inserted under the several tribal heads. But the expression “all Indians,” besides being insusceptible of methodical classification, involves hearsay, which is not the kind of authority desired in a serious study. Such loose talk long delayed the recognition of Anthropology as a science. It is true that some general statements of this character are made by some old authors quoted in the Dictionary, but their descriptions are reprinted, as being all that can be used of the past, for whatever weight they may have, and they are kept separate from the linguistic classification given below.

Regarding the difficulties met with in the task proposed, the same motto might be adopted as was prefixed to Austin’s Chironomia: “Non sum nescius, quantum susceperim negotii, qui motus corporis exprimere verbis, imitari scriptura conatus sim voces.” Rhet. ad Herenn, 1.3. If the descriptive recital of the signs collected had been absolutely restricted to written or printed words the work would have been still more difficult and the result less intelligible. The facilities enjoyed of presenting pictorial illustrations have been of great value and will give still more assistance in the complete work than in the present paper.

In connection with the subject of illustrations it may be noted that a writer in the Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States, Vol. II, No. 5, the same who had before invented the mode of describing signs by “means” mentioned on page 330 supra, gives a curious distinction between deaf-mute and Indian signs regarding their respective capability of illustration, as follows: “This French system is taught, I believe, in most of the schools for deaf-mutes in this country, and in Europe; but so great has been the difficulty of fixing the hands in space, either by written description or illustrated cuts, that no text books are used. I must therefore conclude that the Indian sign language is not only the more natural, but the more simple, as the gestures can be described quite accurately in writing, and I think can be illustrated.” The readers of this paper will also, probably, “think” that the signs of Indians can be illustrated, and as the signs of deaf-mutes are often identical with the Indian, whether expressing the same or different ideas, and when not precisely identical are always made on the same principle and with the same members, it is not easy to imagine any greater difficulty either in their graphic illustration or in their written description. The assertion is as incorrect as if it were paraphrased to declare that a portrait of an Indian in a certain attitude could be taken by a pencil or with the camera while by some occult influence the same artistic skill would be paralysed in attempting that of a deaf-mute in the same attitude. In fact, text books on the “French system” are used and one in the writer’s possession published in Paris twenty-five years ago, contains over four hundred illustrated cuts of deaf-mute gesture signs.

The proper arrangement and classification of signs will always be troublesome and unsatisfactory. There can be no accurate translation either of sentences or of words from signs into written English. So far from the signs representing words as logographs, they do not in their presentation of the ideas of actions, objects, and events, under physical forms, even suggest words, which must be skillfully fitted to them by the glossarist and laboriously derived from, them by the philologer. The use of words in formulation, still more in terminology, is so wide a departure from primitive conditions as to be incompatible with the only primordial language yet discovered. No vocabulary of signs will be exhaustive for the simple reason that the signs are exhaustless, nor will it be exact because there cannot be a correspondence between signs and words taken individually. Not only do words and signs both change their meaning from the context, but a single word may express a complex idea, to be fully rendered only by a group of signs, and, vice versa, a single sign may suffice for a number of words. The elementary principles by which the combinations in sign and in the oral languages of civilization are effected are also discrepant. The attempt must therefore be made to collate and compare the signs according to general ideas, conceptions, and, if possible, the ideas and conceptions of the gesturers themselves, instead of in order of words as usually arranged in dictionaries.

The hearty thanks of the writer are rendered to all his collaborators, a list of whom is given below, and will in future be presented in a manner more worthy of them. It remains to give an explanation of the mode in which a large collection of signs has been made directly by the officers of the Bureau of Ethnology. Fortunately for this undertaking, the policy of the government brought to Washington during the year 1880 delegations, sometimes quite large, of most of the important tribes. Thus the most intelligent of the race from many distant and far separated localities were here in considerable numbers for weeks, and indeed, in some cases, months, and, together with their interpreters and agents, were, by the considerate order of the honorable Secretary of the Interior, placed at the disposal of this Bureau for all purposes of gathering ethnologic information. The facilities thus obtained were much greater than could have been enjoyed by a large number of observers traveling for a long time over the continent for the same express purpose. The observations relating to signs were all made here by the same persons, according to a uniform method, in which the gestures were obtained directly from the Indians, and their meaning (often in itself clear from the context of signs before known) was translated sometimes through the medium of English or Spanish, or of a native language known in common by some one or more of the Indians and by some one of the observers. When an interpreter was employed, he translated the words used by an Indian in his oral paraphrase of the signs, and was not relied upon to explain the signs according to his own ideas. Such translations and a description of minute and rapidly-executed signs, dictated at the moment of their exhibition, were sometimes taken down by a phonographer, that there might be no lapse of memory in any particular, and in many cases the signs were made in successive motions before the camera, and prints secured as certain evidence of their accuracy. Not only were more than one hundred Indians thus examined individually, at leisure, but, on occasions, several parties of different tribes, who had never before met each other, and could not communicate by speech, were examined at the same time, both by inquiry of individuals whose answers were consulted upon by all the Indians present, and also by inducing several of the Indians to engage in talk and story-telling in signs between themselves. Thus it was possible to notice the difference in the signs made for the same objects and the degree of mutual comprehension notwithstanding such differences. Similar studies were made by taking Indians to the National Deaf Mute College and bringing them in contact with the pupils.

By far the greater part of the actual work of the observation and record of the signs obtained at Washington has been ably performed by Dr. W.J. Hoffman, the assistant of the present writer. When the latter has made personal observations the former has always been present, taking the necessary notes and sketches and superintending the photographing. To him, therefore, belongs the credit for all those references in the following “List of Authorities and Collaborators,” in which it is stated that the signs were obtained at Washington from Indian delegations. Dr. Hoffman acquired in the West, through his service as acting assistant surgeon, United States Army, at a large reservation, the indispensable advantage of becoming acquainted with the Indian character so as to conduct skillfully such researches as that in question, and in addition has the eye and pencil of an artist, so that he seizes readily, describes with physiological accuracy, and reproduces in action and in permanent illustration all shades of gesture exhibited. Nearly all of the pictorial illustrations in this paper are from his pencil. For the remainder, and for general superintendence of the artistic department of the work, thanks are due to Mr. W.H. Holmes, whose high reputation needs no indorsement here.




MLA Source Citation:

Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared with that Among Other Peoples and Deaf-Mutes. 1881 AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 18 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/mode-in-which-researches-have-been-made-sign-language.htm - Last updated on Jan 5th, 2014


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