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Permanence of Signs – Sign Language

In connection with any theory it is important to inquire into the permanence of particular gesture signs to express a special idea or object when the system has been long continued. Many examples have been given above showing that the gestures of classic times are still in use by the modern Italians with the same signification; indeed that the former on Greek vases or reliefs or in Herculanean bronzes can only be interpreted by the latter. In regard to the signs of instructed deaf-mutes in this country there appears to be a permanence beyond expectation. Mr. Edmund Booth, a pupil of the Hartford Institute half a century ago, and afterwards a teacher, says in the “Annals” for April, 1880, that the signs used by teachers and pupils at Hartford, Philadelphia, Washington, Council Bluffs, and Omaha were nearly the same as he had learned. “We still adhere to the old sign for President from Monroe’s three-cornered hat, and for governor we designate the cockade worn by that dignitary on grand occasions three generations ago.”

The specific comparisons made, especially by Dr. Washington Matthews and Dr. W.O. Boteler, of the signs reported by the Prince of Wied in 1832 with those now used by the same tribes from whom he obtained them, show a remarkable degree of permanency in many of those that were so clearly described by the Prince as to be proper subjects of any comparison. If they have persisted for half a century their age is probably much greater. In general it is believed that signs, constituting as they do a natural mode of expression, though enlarging in scope as new ideas and new objects require to be included and though abbreviated as hereinafter explained, do not readily change in their essentials.

The writer has before been careful to explain that he does not present any signs as precisely those of primitive man, not being so carried away by enthusiasm as to suppose them possessed of immutability and immortality not found in any other mode of human utterance. Yet such signs as are generally prevalent among Indian tribes, and also in other parts of the world, must be of great antiquity. The use of derivative meanings to a sign only enhances this presumption. At first there might not appear to be any connection between the ideas of same and wife, expressed by the sign of horizontally extending the two forefingers side by side. The original idea was doubtless that given by the Welsh captain in Shakspere’s Henry V: “‘Tis so like as my fingers is to my fingers,” and from this similarity comes “equal,” “companion,” and subsequently the close life-companion “wife.” The sign is used in each of these senses by different Indian tribes, and sometimes the same tribe applies it in all of the senses as the context determines. It appears also in many lands with all the significations except that of “wife.” It is proper here to mention that the suggestion of several correspondents that the Indian sign as applied to “wife” refers to “lying together” is rendered improbable by the fact that when the same tribes desire to express the sexual relation of marriage it is gestured otherwise. Many signs but little differentiated were unstable, while others that have proved the best modes of expression have survived as definite and established. Their prevalence and permanence being mainly determined by the experience of their utility, it would be highly interesting to ascertain how long a time was required for a distinctly new conception or execution to gain currency, become “the fashion,” so to speak, over a large part of the continent, and to be supplanted by a new “mode.” A note may be made in this connection of the large number of diverse signs for horse, all of which must have been invented within a comparatively recent period, and the small variation in the signs for dog, which are probably ancient.

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