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Sign Language Among North American Indians – Degrees of Comparison

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Degrees of comparison are frequently expressed, both by deaf-mutes and by Indians, by adding to the generic or descriptive sign that for “big” or “little.” Damp would be “wet—little”; cool, “cold—little”; hot, “warm—much.” The amount or force of motion also often indicates corresponding diminution or augmentation, but sometimes expresses a different shade of meaning, as is reported by Dr. Matthews with reference to the sign for bad and contempt, see page 411. This change in degree of motion is, however, often used for emphasis only, as is the raising of the voice in speech or italicizing and capitalizing in print. The Prince of Wied gives an instance of a comparison in his sign for excessively hard, first giving that for hard, viz: Open the left hand, and strike against it several times with the right (with the backs of the fingers). Afterwards he gives hard, excessively, as follows: Sign for hard, then place the left index-finger upon the right shoulder, at the same time extend and raise the right arm high, extending the index-finger upward, perpendicularly.

Rev. G.L. Deffenbaugh describes what may perhaps be regarded as an intensive sign among the Sahaptins in connection with the sign for good; i.e., very good. “Place the left hand in position in front of the body with all fingers closed except first, thumb lying on second, then with forefinger of right hand extended in same way point to end of forefinger of left hand, move it up the arm till near the body and then to a point in front of breast to make the sign good.” For the latter see Extracts from Dictionary page 487, infra. The same special motion is prefixed to the sign for bad as an intensive.

Another intensive is reported by Mr. Benjamin Clark, interpreter at the Kaiowa, Comanche, and Wichita agency, Indian Territory, in which after the sign for bad is made, that for strong is used by the Comanches as follows: Place the clinched left fist horizontally in front of the breast, back forward, then pass the palmar side of the right fist downward in front of the knuckles of the left.

Dr. W.H. Corbusier, assistant surgeon U.S.A., writes as follows in response to a special inquiry on the subject: “By carrying the right fist from behind forward over the left, instead of beginning the motion six inches above it, the Arapaho sign for strong is made. For brave, first strike the chest over the heart with the right fist two or three times, and then make the sign for strong.

“The sign for strong expresses the superlative when used with other signs; with coward it denotes a base coward; with hunger, starvation; and with sorrow, bitter sorrow. I have not seen it used with the sign for pleasure or that of hunger, nor can I learn that it is ever used with them.”

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