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Results Sought in the Study of Sign Language

These may be divided into (1) its practical application, (2) its aid to philologic researches in general with (3) particular reference to the grammatic machinery of language, and (4) its archæologic relations.

Practical Application

The most obvious application of Indian sign language will for its practical utility depend, to a large extent, upon the correctness of the view submitted by the present writer that it is not a mere semaphoric repetition of motions to be memorized from a limited traditional list, but is a cultivated art, founded upon principles which can be readily applied by travelers and officials, so as to give them much independence of professional interpreters—as a class dangerously deceitful and tricky. This advantage is not merely theoretical, but has been demonstrated to be practical by a professor in a deaf mute college who, lately visiting several of the wild tribes of the plains, made himself understood among all of them without knowing a word of any of their languages; nor would it only be experienced in connection with American tribes, being applicable to intercourse with savages in Africa and Asia, though it is not pretended to fulfill by this agency the schoolmen’s dream of an ecumenical mode of communication between all peoples in spite of their dialectic divisions.

It must be admitted that the practical value of signs for intercourse with the American Indians will not long continue, their general progress in the acquisition of English or of Spanish being so rapid that those languages are becoming, to a surprising extent, the common medium, and signs are proportionally disused. Nor is a systematic use of signs of so great assistance in communicating with foreigners, whose speech is not understood, as might at first be supposed, unless indeed both parties agree to cease all attempt at oral language, relying wholly upon gestures. So long as words are used at all, signs will be made only as their accompaniment, and they will not always be ideographic. An amusing instance in which savages showed their preference to signs instead of even an onomatope may be quoted from Wilfred Powell’s Observations on New Britain and neighboring Islands during Six Years’ Exploration, in Proc. Roy. Geog. Soc., vol. iii, No. 2 (new monthly series), February, 1881, p. 89, 90: “On one occasion, wishing to purchase a pig, and not knowing very well how to set about it, being ignorant of the dialect, which is totally different from that of the natives in the north, I asked Mr. Brown how I should manage, or what he thought would be the best way of making them understand. He said, ‘Why don’t you try granting?’ whereupon I began to grunt most vociferously. The effect was magical. Some of them jumped back, holding their spears in readiness to throw; others ran away, covering their eyes with their hands, and all exhibited the utmost astonishment and alarm. In fact, it was so evident that they expected me to turn into a pig, and their alarm was so irresistibly comic, that Mr. Brown and I both burst out laughing, on which they gradually became more reassured, and those that had run away came back, and seeing us so heartily amused, and that I had not undergone any metamorphosis, began to laugh too; but when I drew a pig on the sand with a piece of stick, and made motions of eating, it suddenly seemed to strike them what was the matter, for they all burst out laughing, nodding their heads, and several of them ran off, evidently in quest of the pig that was required.”

Powers of Signs Compared with Speech

Sign language, being the mother utterance of nature, poetically styled by Lamartine the visible attitudes of the soul, is superior to all others in that it permits every one to find in nature an image to express his thoughts on the most needful matters intelligently to any other person. The direct or substantial natural analogy peculiar to it prevents a confusion of ideas. It is to some extent possible to use words without understanding them which yet may be understood by those addressed, but it is hardly possible to use signs without full comprehension of them. Separate words may also be comprehended by persons hearing them without the whole connected sense of the words taken together being caught, but signs are more intimately connected. Even those most appropriate will not be understood if the subject is beyond the comprehension of their beholders. They would be as unintelligible as the wild clicks of his instrument, in an electric storm, would be to the telegrapher, or as the semaphore, driven by wind, to the signalist. In oral speech even onomatopes are arbitrary, the most strictly natural sounds striking the ear of different individuals and nations in a manner wholly diverse. The instances given by Sayce are in point. Exactly the same sound was intended to be reproduced in the “bilbit amphora” of Nævius, the “glut glut murmurat unda sonans” of the Latin Anthology, and the “puls” of Varro. The Persian “bulbul,” the “jugjug” of Gascoigne, and the “whitwhit” of others are all attempts at imitating the note of the nightingale. Successful signs must have a much closer analogy and establish, a consensus between the talkers far beyond that produced by the mere sound of words.

Gestures, in the degree of their pantomimic character, excel in graphic and dramatic effect applied to narrative and to rhetorical exhibition, and beyond any other mode of description give the force of reality. Speech, when highly cultivated, is better adapted to generalization and abstraction; therefore to logic and metaphysics. The latter must ever henceforth, be the superior in formulating thoughts. Some of the enthusiasts in signs have contended that this unfavorable distinction is not from any inherent incapability, but because their employment has not been continued unto perfection, and that if they had been elaborated by the secular labor devoted to spoken language they might in resources and distinctiveness have exceeded many forms of the latter. Gallaudet, Peet, and others maybe right in asserting that man could by his arms, hands, and fingers, with facial and bodily accentuation, express any idea that could be conveyed by words.

The combinations which can be made with corporeal signs are infinite. It has been before argued that a high degree of culture might have been attained by man without articulate speech and it is but a further step in the reasoning to conclude that if articulate speech had not been possessed or acquired, necessity would have developed gesture language to a degree far beyond any known exhibition of it. The continually advancing civilization and continually increasing intercourse of countless ages has perfected oral speech, and as both, civilization and intercourse were possible with signs alone it is to be supposed that they would have advanced in some corresponding manner. But as sign language has been chiefly used during historic time either as a scaffolding around a more valuable structure to be thrown aside when the latter was completed, or as an occasional substitute, such development was not to be expected.

The process of forming signs to express abstract ideas is only a variant from that of oral speech, in which the words for the most abstract ideas, such as law, virtue, infinitude, and immortality, are shown by Max Müller to have been derived and deduced, that is, abstracted, from sensuous impressions. In the use of signs the countenance and manner as well as the tenor decide whether objects themselves are intended, or the forms, positions, qualities, and motions of other objects which are suggested, and signs for moral and intellectual ideas, founded on analogies, are common all over the world as well as among deaf-mutes. Concepts of the intangible and invisible are only learned through percepts of tangible and visible objects, whether finally expressed to the eye or to the ear, in terms of sight or of sound.

Sign language is so faithful to nature, and so essentially living in its expression, that it is not probable that it will ever die. It may become disused, but will revert. Its elements are ever natural and universal, by recurring to which the less natural signs adopted dialectically or for expedition can always, with, some circumlocution, be explained. This power of interpreting itself is a peculiar advantage, for spoken languages, unless explained by gestures or indications, can only be interpreted by means of some other spoken language. When highly cultivated, its rapidity on familiar subjects exceeds that of speech and approaches to that of thought itself. This statement may be startling to those who only notice that a selected spoken word may convey in an instant a meaning for which the motions of even an expert in signs may require a much longer time, but it must be considered that oral speech is now wholly conventional, and that with the similar development of sign language conventional expressions with hands and body could be made more quickly than with the vocal organs, because more organs could be worked at once. Without such supposed development the habitual communication between deaf-mutes and among Indians using signs is perhaps as rapid as between the ignorant class of speakers upon the same subjects, and in many instances the signs would win at a trial of speed. At the same time it must be admitted that great increase in rapidity is chiefly obtained by the system of preconcerted abbreviations, before explained, and by the adoption of arbitrary forms, in which naturalness is sacrificed and conventionality established, as has been the case with all spoken languages in the degree in which they have become copious and convenient.

There is another characteristic of the gesture speech that, though it cannot be resorted to in the dark, nor where the attention of the person addressed has not been otherwise attracted, it has the countervailing benefit of use when the voice could not be employed. This may be an advantage at a distance which the eye can reach, but not the ear, and still more frequently when silence or secrecy is desired. Dalgarno recommends it for use in the presence of great people, who ought not to be disturbed, and curiously enough “Disappearing Mist,” the Iroquois chief, speaks of the former extensive use of signs in his tribe by women and boys as a mark of respect to warriors and elders, their voices, in the good old days, not being uplifted in the presence of the latter. The decay of that wholesome state of discipline, he thinks, accounts partly for the disappearance of the use of signs among the modern impudent youth and the dusky claimants of woman’s rights.

An instance of the additional power gained to a speaker of ordinary language by the use of signs, impressed the writer while dictating to two amanuenses at the same moment, to the one by signs and the other by words, on different subjects, a practice which would have enabled Cæsar to surpass his celebrated feat. It would also be easy to talk to a deaf and blind man at once, the latter being addressed by the voice and the former in signs.

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