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A lesson was learned by the writer as to the abbreviation of signs, and the possibility of discovering the original meaning of those most obscure, from the attempts of a Cheyenne to convey the idea of old man. He held his right hand forward, bent at elbow, fingers and thumb closed sidewise. This not conveying any sense, he found a long stick, bent his back, and supported his frame in a tottering step by the stick held, as was before only imagined. Here at once was decrepit age dependent on a staff. The principle of abbreviation or reduction may be illustrated by supposing a person, under circumstances forbidding the use of the voice, seeking to call attention to a particular bird on a tree, and failing to do so by mere indication. Descriptive signs are resorted to, perhaps suggesting the bill and wings of the bird, its manner of clinging to the twig with its feet, its size by seeming to hold it between the hands, its color by pointing to objects of the same hue; perhaps by the action of shooting into a tree, picking up the supposed fallen game, and plucking feathers. These are continued until understood, and if one sign or combination of signs proves to be successful it will be repeated on the next occasion by both persons engaged, and after becoming familiar between them and others will be more and more abbreviated. Conventionality in signs largely consists in the form of abbreviation which is agreed upon. When the signs of the Indians have from ideographic form thus become demotic, they may be called conventional, but still not arbitrary. In them, as in all his actions, man had at the first a definite meaning or purpose, together with method in their subsequent changes or modifications.
Colonel Dodge gives a clear account of the manner in which an established sign is abbreviated in practice, as follows: “There are an almost infinite number and variety of abbreviations. For instance, to tell a man to ‘talk,’ the most common formal sign is made thus: Hold the right hand in front of, the back near, the mouth, end of thumb and index-finger joined into an ‘O,’ the outer fingers closed on the palm; throw the hand forward sharply by a quick motion of the wrist, and at the same time flip forward the index-finger. This may be done once or several times.
“The formal sign to ‘cease’ or ‘stop doing’ anything is made by bringing the two hands open and held vertically in front of the body, one behind the other, then quickly pass one upward, the other downward, simulating somewhat the motion of the limbs of a pair of scissors, meaning ‘cut it off.’ The latter sign is made in conversation in a variety of ways, but habitually with one hand only.
“The formal sign to ‘stop talking’ is first to make the formal sign for ‘talk,’ then the formal sign for ‘cut;’ but this is commonly abbreviated by first making the formal sign for ‘talk’ with the right hand, and then immediately passing the same hand, open, fingers extended, downward across and in front of the mouth, ‘talk, cut.’
“But though the Plains Indian, if asked for the sign to ‘stop talking,’ will properly give the sign either in its extended or abbreviated form as above, he in conversation abbreviates it so much further that the sign loses almost all resemblance to its former self. Whatever the position of the hand, a turn of the wrist, a flip of the forefinger, and a turn, of the wrist back to its original position is fully equivalent to the elaborate signs.”
It may be added that nearly every sign which to be intelligibly described and as exhibited in full requires the use of both hands, is outlined, with one hand only, by skillful Indians gesturing between themselves, so as to be clearly understood between them. Two Indians, whose blankets are closely held to their bodies by the left hand, which is necessarily rendered unavailable for gesture, will severally thrust the right from beneath the protecting folds and converse freely. The same is true when one hand of each holds the bridle of a horse.
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The Italian signs are also made in such abbreviated forms as to be little more than hinted at, requiring a perfect knowledge of the full and original form before the slight and often furtive suggestion of it can be understood. Deaf-mutes continually seek by tacit agreement to shorten their signs more and more. While the original of each may be preserved in root or stem, it is only known to the proficient, as the root or stem of a plant enables botanists, but no others, to distinguish it. Thus the natural character of signs, the universal significance which is their peculiarly distinctive feature, may and often does become lost. From the operation of the principle of independent and individual abbreviation inherent in all sign language, without any other cause, that of the Indians must in one or two generations have become diverse, even if it had in fact originated from one tribe in which all conceptions and executions were absolute.