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Are Signs Conventional or Instinctive? – Sign Language

There has been much discussion on the question whether gesture signs were originally invented, in the strict sense of that term, or whether they result from a natural connection between them and the ideas represented by them, that is whether they are conventional or instinctive. Cardinal Wiseman (Essays, III, 537) thinks that they are of both characters; but referring particularly to the Italian signs and the proper mode of discovering their meaning, observes that they are used primarily with words and from the usual accompaniment of certain phrases. “For these the gestures become substitutes, and then by association express all their meaning, even when used alone.” This would be the process only where systematic gestures had never prevailed or had been so disused as to be forgotten, and were adopted after elaborate oral phrases and traditional oral expressions had become common. In other parts of this paper it is suggested that conventionality chiefly consists in abbreviation, and that signs are originally self-interpreting, independent of words, and therefore in a certain sense instinctive. Another form of the above query, having the same intent, is whether signs are arbitrary or natural. The answer will depend upon what the observer considers to be natural to himself. A common sign among both deaf-mutes and Indians for woman consists in designating the arrangement of the hair, but such a represented arrangement of hair familiar to the gesturer as had never been seen by the person addressed would not seem “natural” to the latter. It would be classed as arbitrary, and could not be understood without context or explanation, indeed without translation such as is...

Signals – Smoke Signals of the Apaches – Sign Language

The following information was obtained by Dr. W.J. Hoffman from the Apache chiefs under the title of Tinnean, (Apache I): The materials used in making smoke of sufficient density and color consist of pine or cedar boughs, leaves and grass, which can nearly always be obtained in the regions occupied by the Apaches of Northern New Mexico. These Indians state that they employ but three kinds of signals, each of which consists of columns of smoke, numbering from one to three or more. Alarm This signal is made by causing three or more columns of smoke to ascend, and signifies danger or the approach of an enemy, and also requires the concentration of those who see them. These signals are communicated from one camp to another, and the most distant bands are guided by their location. The greater the haste desired the greater the number of columns of smoke. These are often so hastily made that they may resemble puffs of smoke, and are caused by throwing heaps of grass and leaves upon the embers again and again. Attention This signal is generally made by producing one continuous column, and signifies attention for several purposes, viz, when a band had become tired of one locality, or the grass may have been consumed by the ponies, or some other cause necessitated removal, or should an enemy be reported, which would require farther watching before a decision as to future action would be made. The intention or knowledge of anything unusual would be communicated to neighboring bands by causing one column of smoke to ascend. Establishment of a Camp; Quiet; Safety...

Survival in Gesture – Sign Language

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...

Signals – Signals in Which Objects Are Used in Connection With Personal Action – Sign Language

Buffalo Discovered. See also Notes on Cheyenne and Arapaho signals When the Ponkas or Omahas discover buffalo the watcher stands erect on the hill, with his face toward the camp, holding his blanket with an end in each hand, his arms being stretched out (right and left) on a line with, shoulders. (Dakota VIII; Omaha I; Ponka I.) See Fig. 337. Signal for “buffalo discovered.” Same as (Omaha I), and (Ponka I); with the addition that after the blanket is held out at arm’s length the arms are crossed in front of the body. (DakotaI.) Camp! When it is intended to encamp, a blanket is elevated upon a pole so as to be visible to all the individuals of a moving party. (Dakota VIII.) Come! To Beckon to a Person Hold out the lower edge of the robe or blanket, then wave it in to the legs. This is made when there is a desire to avoid general observation. (Matthews.) Come Back! Gather or grasp the left side of the unbuttoned coat (or blanket) with the right hand, and, either standing or sitting in position so that the signal can be seen, wave it to the left and right as often as may be necessary for the sign to be recognized. When made standing the person should not move his body. (Dakota I.) Danger. See also Notes on Cheyenne and Arapaho signals. ——- – Horseman at a distance, galloping, passing and repassing, and crossing each other—enemy comes. But for notice of herd of buffalo, they gallop back and forward abreast—do not cross each other. (H.M. Brackenridge’s Views of Louisiana....

Sign Language Among North American Indians

Sign language among North American Indians was surprisingly uniform across the tribes, and appears to be the “language” of choice when Indians traversed from tribe to tribe in order to trade. This manuscript provides detailed signs for common dictionary words, complete narration and dialogue, as well as the history of sign language and how its origin in the Indian nations. Of particular interest are the sections on Native American gestures, and their use of smoke signals, fire signals, and dust signals.

Sign Language with Reference to Grammar

Apart from the more material and substantive relations between signs and language, it is to be expected that analogies can by proper research be ascertained between their several developments in the manner of their use, that is, in their grammatic mechanism, and in the genesis of the sentence. The science of language, ever henceforward to be studied historically, must take account of the similar early mental processes in which the phrase or sentence originated, both in sign and oral utterance. In this respect, as in many others, the North American Indians may be considered to be living representatives of prehistoric man. Syntax The reader will understand without explanation that there is in the gesture speech no organized sentence such as is integrated in the languages of civilization, and that he must not look for articles or particles or passive voice or case or grammatic gender, or even what appears in those languages as a substantive or a verb, as a subject or a predicate, or as qualifiers or inflexions. The sign radicals, without being specifically any of our parts of speech, may be all of them in turn. There is, however, a grouping and sequence of the ideographic pictures, an arrangement of signs in connected succession, which may be classed under the scholastic head of syntax. This subject, with special reference to the order of deaf-mute signs as compared with oral speech, has been the theme of much discussion, some notes of which, condensed from the speculations of M. Rémi Valade and others, follow in the next paragraph without further comment than may invite attention to the profound remark...

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...

Scheme of Illustration – Sign Language

In the following pages the scheme of graphic illustration, intended both to save labor and secure accuracy, which was presented in the Introduction to the Study of Sign Language, is reproduced with some improvements. It is given for the use of observers who may not see that publication, the material parts of which being included in the present paper it is not necessary that the former should now be furnished. The Types of Hand Positions were prepared for reference by the corresponding letters of the alphabet to avoid tedious description, should any of them exactly correspond, or by alteration, as suggested in the note following them. These, as well as the Outlines of Arm Positions, giving front and side outline’s with arms pendant, were distributed in separate sheets to observers for their convenience in recording, and this will still be cheerfully done when request is made to the present writer. When the sheets are not accessible the Types can be used for graphic changes by tracing the one selected, or by a few words indicating the change, as shown in the Examples. The Outlines of Arm Positions can also be readily traced for the same use as if the sheets had been provided. It is hoped that this scheme, promoting uniformity in description and illustration, will be adopted by all observers who cannot be specially addressed. Collaborators in the gestures of foreign uncivilized peoples will confer a favor by sending at least one photograph or sketch in native costume of a typical individual of the tribe, the gestures of which are reported upon, in order that it may be...
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