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Not Correlated with Meagerness of Language – Sign Language

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The story has been told by travelers in many parts of the world that various languages cannot be clearly understood in the dark by their possessors, using their mother tongue between themselves. The evidence for this anywhere is suspicious; and when it is asserted, as it often has been, in reference to some of the tribes of North American Indians, it is absolutely false, and must be attributed to the error of travelers who, ignorant of the dialect, never see the natives except when trying to make themselves intelligible to their visitors by a practice which they have found by experience to have been successful with strangers to their tongue, or perhaps when they are guarding against being overheard by others. Captain Burton, in his City of the Saints, specially states that the Arapahos possess a very scanty vocabulary, pronounced in a quasi-unintelligible way, and can hardly converse with one another in the dark. The truth is that their vocabulary is by no means scanty, and they do converse with each other with perfect freedom without any gestures when they so please. The difficulty in speaking or understanding their language is in the large number of guttural and interrupted sounds which are not helped by external motions of the mouth and lips in articulation, and the light gives little advantage to its comprehension so far as concerns the vocal apparatus, which, in many languages, can be seen as well as heard, as is proved by the modern deaf-mute practice of artificial speech. The corresponding story that no white man ever learned Arapaho is also false. A member of Frémont’s party so long ago as 1842 spoke the language. Burton in the same connection gives a story “of a man who, being sent among the Cheyennes to qualify himself for interpreting, returned in a week and proved his competency; all he did, however, was to go through the usual pantomime with a running accompaniment of grunts.” And he might as well have omitted the grunts, for he obviously only used sign language. Lieutenant Abert, in 1846-’47, made much more sensible remarks from his actual observation than Captain Burton repeated at second-hand from a Mormon met by him at Salt Lake. He said: “Some persons think that it [the Cheyenne language] would be incomplete without gesture, because the Indians use gestures constantly. But I have been assured that the language is in itself capable of bodying forth any idea to which one may wish to give utterance.”

In fact, individuals of those American tribes specially instanced in these reports as unable to converse without gesture, often, in their domestic abandon, wrap themselves up in robes or blankets with only breathing holes before the nose, so that no part of the body is seen, and chatter away for hours, telling long stories. If in daylight they thus voluntarily deprive themselves of the possibility of making signs, it is clear that their preference for talks around the fire at night is explicable by very natural reasons wholly distinct from the one attributed. The inference, once carelessly made from the free use of gesture by some of the Shoshonian stock, that their tongue was too meager for use without signs, is refuted by the now ascertained fact that their vocabulary is remarkably copious and their parts of speech better differentiated than those of many people on whom no such stigma has been affixed. The proof of this was seen in the writer’s experience, when Ouray, the head chief of the Utes, was at Washington, in the early part of 1880, and after an interview with the Secretary of the Interior made report of it to the rest of the delegation who had not been present. He spoke without pause in his own language for nearly an hour, in a monotone and without a single gesture. The reason for this depressed manner was undoubtedly because he was very sad at the result, involving loss of land and change of home; but the fact remains that full information was communicated on a complicated subject without the aid of a manual sign, and also without even such change of inflection of voice as is common among Europeans. All theories based upon the supposed poverty of American languages must be abandoned.

The grievous accusation against foreign people that they have no intelligible language is venerable and general. With the Greeks the term αγλωσσος, “tongueless,” was used synonymous with βαρβαρος, “barbarian” of all who were not Greek. The name “Slav,” assumed by a grand division of the Aryan family, means “the speaker,” and is contradistinguished from the other peoples of the world, such as the Germans, who are called in Russian “Njemez,” that is, “speechless.” In Isaiah (xxxiii, 19) the Assyrians are called a people “of a stammering tongue, that one cannot understand.” The common use of the expression “tongueless” and “speechless,” so applied, has probably given rise, as Tylor suggests, to the mythical stories of actually speechless tribes of savages, and the considerations and instances above presented tend to discredit the many other accounts of languages which are incomplete without the help of gesture. The theory that sign language was in whole or in chief the original utterance of mankind would be strongly supported by conclusive evidence to the truth of such travelers’ tales, but does not depend upon them. Nor, considering the immeasurable period during which, in accordance with modern geologic views, man has been on the earth, is it probable that any existing races can be found in which speech has not obviated the absolute necessity for gesture in communication among themselves. The signs survive for convenience, used together with oral language, and for special employment when language is unavailable.

A comparison sometimes drawn between sign language and that of our Indians, founded on the statement of their common poverty in abstract expressions, is not just to either. This paper will be written in vain if it shall not suggest the capacities of gesture speech in that regard, and a deeper study into Indian tongues has shown that they are by no means so confined to the concrete as was once believed.

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