Language Extinction and American Sign Language
by Joy Fisher
Martha’s Vineyard is located in Massachusetts and beginning in the 17th
century hereditary deafness was very common among the local inhabitants. In
response to the high number of residents who could not hear (or learn)
spoken English, a sign language emerged which the residents called “Chilmark
Sign Language”. In the 1820s many of the younger residents from the Martha’s
Vineyard community traveled to the American School for the Deaf in Hartford,
Connecticut. As the children began to learn the still-developing American
Sign Language, the students, who were from all over the country and who
brought their own “home signs” or their set of signs used when communicating
with family and friends, also affected American Sign Language. Even though
many children were educated at the School for the Deaf, some still held on
to MVSL (Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language) in order to communicate with their
family and friends who had not been taught ASL (Groce, 1985).
“A language is considered extinct when there are no
more native speakers”. For MVSL, it officially became extinct when Katie
West, who was the last Martha’s Vineyard native signer, died in 1952. Even
though MVSL is now extinct, there were still residents of Martha’s Vineyard
who could use the signs in the early 1980s (Pelucchi, 2006). When a
community loses its language the same community also loses a large part of
their cultural identity so when MVSL was lost, a part of the community’s
identity was also lost. Usually languages are referred to as extinct when
children are no longer being taught the language and a language is
identified as endangered when only a few children are being taught the
language (Woodbury,). American Sign Language, which is still considered a
young language by many linguists, does not seem to be endangered at all
because sign language is still growing in popularity in the U.S. Deaf
parents are not the only ones who are teaching their children ASL, hearing
parents are also trying to teach their children sign language while they are
first learning English because studies have shown that a child can grasp the
use of words better through the use of a mix of signing and spoken language.
The deaf community in America and all over the world has been put to the
question of changing their community identity through the use of new medical
technologies that can allow a person who is deaf to hear. If a lot of people
were to change their bodies in order to hear then the deaf community would
have to decide how to classify this new group of people and ASL would move a
few steps closer to being an endangered language but this entire scenario
depends on a very large “if”.
At this time there is no “universal sign language”. A
committee of the World Federation of the Deaf developed a sign form called
Gestuno which was really an agreed upon vocabulary of signs that were to be
used at the federation’s international meetings. Karen Nakamura in her
article “About American Sign Language” argues that Gestuno still does not
qualify as a universal sign language because federation members still sign
their native language when they are not in meetings and Gestuno is not being
taught to children universally (Nakamura, 1995). No one can say with any
certainty which languages will fall into extinction but one can hope that
their own language will wield some influence on the languages that survive
or develop in the future.
Groce, Nora Ellen (1985). Everyone Here Spoke Sign
Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Nakamura, Karen (1995,Jul.13). About American Sign
Language. Deaf Resource Library. Retrieved 30, Mar. 2009:
Pelucchi, Bruna (2006). Speaking with Hands: the Birth
of a New Sign Language. Le Scienze Web News. Retrieved 29, Mar. 2009:
Woodbury, Anthony. What is an Endangered Language?
Linguistic Society of America. Retrieved 29, Mar. 2009: http://www.lsadc.org/info/ling-faqs-endanger.cfm.
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