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Survival in Gesture – Sign Language

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Even when the specific practice of sign language has been generally discontinued for more than one generation, either from the adoption of a jargon or from the common use of the tongue of the conquering English, French, or Spanish, some of the gestures formerly employed as substitutes for words may survive as a customary accompaniment to oratory or impassioned conversation, and, when ascertained, should be carefully noted. An example, among many, may be found in the fact that the now civilized Muskoki or Creeks, as mentioned by Rev. H.F. Buckner, when speaking of the height of children or women, illustrate their words by holding their hands at the proper elevation, palm up; but when describing the height of “soulless” animals or inanimate objects, they hold the palm downward. This, when correlated with the distinctive signs of other Indians, is an interesting case of the survival of a practice which, so far as yet reported, the oldest men of the tribe, now living only remember to have once existed. It is probable that a collection of such distinctive gestures among the most civilized Indians would reproduce enough of their ancient system to be valuable, while possibly the persistent inquirer might in his search discover some of its surviving custodians even among Chahta or Cheroki, Innuit or Abnaki, Klamath or Nutka.

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