Distinction Between Identity of Signs and Their Use as an Art – Sign Language

The general report that there is but one sign language in North America, any deviation from which is either blunder, corruption, or a dialect in the nature of provincialism, may be examined in reference to some of the misconceived facts which gave it origin and credence. It may not appear to be necessary that such examination should be directed to any mode of collecting and comparing signs which would amount to their distortion. It is useful, however, to explain that distortion would result from following the views of a recent essayist, who takes the ground that the description of signs should be made according to a “mean” or average. There can be no philosophic consideration of signs according to a “mean” of observations. The proper object is to ascertain the radical or essential part as distinct from any individual flourish or mannerism on the one hand, and from a conventional or accidental abbreviation on the other; but a mere average will not accomplish that object. If the hand, being in any position whatever, is, according to five observations, moved horizontally one foot to the right, and, according to five other observations, moved one foot horizontally to the left, the “mean” or resultant will be that it is stationary, which sign does not correspond with any of the ten observations. So if six observations give it a rapid motion of one foot to the right and five a rapid motion of the same distance to the left, the mean or resultant would be somewhat difficult to express, but perhaps would be a slow movement to the right for an inch or two, having certainly no resemblance either in essentials or accidents to any of the signs actually observed. In like manner the tail of the written letter “y” (which, regarding its mere formation, might be a graphic sign) may have in the chirography of several persons various degrees of slope, may be a straight line, or looped, and may be curved on either side; but a “mean” taken from the several manuscripts would leave the unfortunate letter without any tail whatever, or travestied as a “u” with an amorphous flourish. A definition of the radical form of the letter or sign by which it can be distinguished from any other letter or sign is a very different proceeding. Therefore, if a “mean” or resultant of any number of radically different signs to express the same object or idea, observed either among several individuals of the same tribe or among different tribes, is made to represent those signs, they are all mutilated and ignored as distinctive signs, though the result may possibly be made intelligible in practice, according to principles mentioned in the present paper. The expedient of a “mean” may be practically useful in the formation of a mere interpreter’s jargon, but it elucidates no principle. It is also convenient for any one determined to argue for the uniformity of sign language as against the variety in unity apparent in all the realms of nature. On the “mean” principle, he only needs to take his two-foot rule and arithmetical tables and make all signs his signs and his signs all signs. Of course they are uniform, because he has made them so after the brutal example of Procrustes.

In this connection it is proper to urge a warning that a mere sign talker is often a bad authority upon principles and theories. He may not be liable to the satirical compliment of Dickens’s “brave courier,” who “understood all languages indifferently ill”; but many men speak some one language fluently, and yet are wholly unable to explain or analyze its words and forms so as to teach it to another person, or even to give an intelligent summary or classification of their own knowledge. What such a sign talker has learned is by memorizing, as a child may learn English, and though both the sign talker and the child may be able to give some separate items useful to a philologist or foreigner, such items are spoiled when colored by the attempt of ignorance to theorize. A German who has studied English to thorough mastery, except in the mere facility of speech, may in a discussion upon some of its principles be contradicted by any mere English speaker, who insists upon his superior knowledge because he actually speaks the language and his antagonist does not, but the student will probably be correct and the talker wrong. It is an old adage about oral speech that a man who understands but one language understands none. The science of a sign talker possessed by a restrictive theory is like that of Mirabeau, who was greater as an orator than as a philologist, and who on a visit to England gravely argued that there was something seriously wrong in the British mind because the people would persist in saying “give me some bread” instead of “donnez-moi du pain,” which was so much easier and more natural. A designedly ludicrous instance to the same effect was Hood’s arraignment of the French because they called their mothers “mares” and their daughters “fillies.” It is necessary to take with caution any statement from a person who, having memorized or hashed up any number of signs, large or small, has decided in his conceit that those he uses are the only genuine Simon Pure, to be exclusively employed according to his direction, all others being counterfeits or blunders. His vocabulary has ceased to give the signs of any Indian or body of Indians whatever, but becomes his own, the proprietorship of which he fights for as if secured by letters-patent. When a sign is contributed by one of the present collaborators, which such a sign talker has not before seen or heard of, he will at once condemn it as bad, just as a United States Minister to Vienna, who had been nursed in the mongrel Dutch of Berks County, Pennsylvania, declared that the people of Germany spoke very bad German.

An argument for the uniformity of the signs of our Indians is derived from the fact that those used by any of them are generally understood by others. But signs may be understood without being identical with any before seen. The entribal as well as intertribal exercise of Indians for generations in gesture language has naturally produced great skill both in expression and reception, so as to render them measurably independent of any prior mutual understanding, or what in a system of signals is called preconcert. Two accomplished army signalists can, after sufficient trial, communicate without having any code in common between them, one being mutually devised, and those specially designed for secrecy are often deciphered. So, if any one of the more conventional signs is not quickly comprehended, an Indian skilled in the principle of signs resorts to another expression of his flexible art, perhaps reproducing the gesture unabbreviated and made more graphic, perhaps presenting either the same or another conception or quality of the same object or idea by an original portraiture.

An impression of the community of signs is the more readily made because explorers and officials are naturally brought into contact more closely with those individuals of the tribes visited who are experts in sign language than with their other members, and those experts, on account of their skill as interpreters, are selected as guides to accompany the visitors. The latter also seek occasion to be present when signs are used, whether with or without words, in intertribal councils, and then the same class of experts comprises the orators, for long exercise in gesture speech has made the Indian politicians, with no special effort, masters of the art acquired by our public speakers only after laborious apprenticeship. The whole theory and practice of sign language being that all who understand its principles can make themselves mutually intelligible, the fact of the ready comprehension and response among all the skilled gesturers gives the impression of a common code. Furthermore, if the explorer learn to employ with ingenuity the signs used by any of the tribes, he will probably be understood in any other by the same class of persons who will surround him in the latter, thereby confirming him in the “common” theory. Those of the tribe who are less skilled, but who are not noticed, might be unable to catch the meaning of signs which have not been actually taught to them, just as ignorant persons among us cannot derive any sense from newly-coined words or those strange to their habitual vocabulary, which, though never before heard, linguistic scholars would instantly understand and might afterward adopt.

It is also common experience that when Indians find that a sign which has become conventional among their tribe is not understood by an interlocutor, a self-expressive sign is substituted for it, from which a visitor may form the impression that there are no conventional signs. It may likewise occur that the self-expressive sign substituted will be met with by a visitor in several localities, different Indians, in their ingenuity, taking the best and the same means of reaching the exotic intelligence.

There is some evidence that where sign language is now found among Indian tribes it has become more uniform than ever before, simply because many tribes have for some time past been forced to dwell near together at peace. A collection was obtained in the spring of 1880, at Washington, from a united delegation of the Kaiowa, Comanche, Apache, and Wichita tribes, which was nearly uniform, but the individuals who gave the signs had actually lived together at or near Anadarko, Indian Territory, for a considerable time, and the resulting uniformity of their signs might either be considered as a jargon or as the natural tendency to a compromise for mutual understanding—the unification so often observed in oral speech, coming under many circumstances out of former heterogeneity. The rule is that dialects precede languages and that out of many dialects comes one language. It may be found that other individuals of those same tribes who have from any cause not lived in the union explained may have signs for the same ideas different from those in the collection above mentioned. This is probable, because some signs of other representatives of one of the component bodies—Apache—have actually been reported differing from those for the same ideas given by the Anadarko group. The uniformity of the signs of those Arapahos, Cheyennes, and Sioux who have been secluded for years at one particular reservation, so far as could be done by governmental power, from the outer world, was used in argument by a correspondent; but some collected signs of other Cheyennes and Sioux differ, not only from those on the reservation, but among each other. Therefore the signs used in common by the tribes at the reservation seem to have been modified and to a certain extent unified.

The result of the collation and analysis of the large number of signs collected is that in numerous instances there is an entire discrepancy between the signs made by different bodies of Indians to express the same idea, and that if any of these are regarded as rigidly determinate, or even conventional with a limited range, and used without further devices, they will fail in conveying the desired impression to any one unskilled in gesture as an art, who had not formed the same precise conception or been instructed in the arbitrary motion. Few of the gestures that are found in current use are, in their origin, conventional. They are only portions, more or less elaborate, of obvious natural pantomime, and those proving efficient to convey most successfully at any time the several ideas became the most widely adopted, liable, however, to be superseded by more appropriate conceptions and delineations. The skill of any tribe and the copiousness of its signs are proportioned first to the necessity for their use, and secondly to the accidental ability of the individuals in it who act as custodians and teachers, so that the several tribes at different times vary in their degree of proficiency, and therefore both the precise mode of semiotic expression and the amount of its general use are always fluctuating. Sign language as a product of evolution has been developed rather than invented, and yet it seems probable that each of the separate signs, like the several steps that lead to any true invention, had a definite origin arising out of some appropriate occasion, and the same sign may in this manner have had many independent origins due to identity in the circumstances, or if lost, may have been reproduced.

The process is precisely the same as that observed among deaf-mutes. One of those unfortunate persons, living with his speaking relatives, may invent signs which the latter are taught to understand, though strangers sometimes will not, because they may be by no means the fittest expressions. Should a dozen or more deaf-mutes, possessed only of such crude signs, come together, they will be able at first to communicate only on a few common subjects, but the number of those and the general scope of expression will be continually enlarged. Each one commences with his own conception and his own presentment of it, but the universality of the medium used makes it sooner or later understood. This independent development, thus creating diversity, often renders the first interchange of thought between strangers slow, for the signs must be self-interpreting. There can be no natural universal language which is absolute and arbitrary. When used without convention, as sign language alone of all modes of utterance can be, it must be tentative, experimental, and flexible. The mutes will also resort to the invention of new signs for new ideas as they arise, which will be made intelligible, if necessary, through the illustration and definition given by signs formerly adopted, so that the fittest signs will be evolved, after rivalry and trial, and will survive. But there may not always be such a preponderance of fitness that all but one of the rival signs shall die out, and some, being equal in value to express the same idea or object, will continue to be used indifferently, or as a matter of individual taste, without confusion. A multiplication of the numbers confined together, either of deaf-mutes or of Indians whose speech is diverse, will not decrease the resulting uniformity, though it will increase both the copiousness and the precision of the vocabulary. The Indian use of signs, though maintained by linguistic diversities, is not coincident with any linguistic boundaries. The tendency is to their uniformity among groups of people who from any cause are brought into contact with each other while still speaking different languages. The longer and closer such contact, while no common tongue is adopted, the greater will be the uniformity of signs.

Colonel Dodge takes a middle ground with regard to the identity of the signs used by our Indians, comparing it with the dialects and provincialisms of the English language, as spoken in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. But those dialects are the remains of actually diverse languages, which to some speakers have not become integrated. In England alone the provincial dialects are traceable as the legacies of Saxons, Angles, Jutes, and Danes, with a varying amount of Norman influence. A thorough scholar in the composite tongue, now called English, will be able to understand all the dialects and provincialisms of English in the British Isles, but the uneducated man of Yorkshire is not able to communicate readily with the equally uneducated man of Somersetshire. This is the true distinction to be made. A thorough sign talker would be able to talk with several Indians who have no signs in common, and who, if their knowledge of signs were only memorized, could not communicate together. So also, as an educated Englishman will understand the attempts of a foreigner to speak in very imperfect and broken English, a good Indian sign expert will apprehend the feeble efforts of a tyro in gestures. But Colonel Dodge’s conclusion that there is but one true Indian sign language, just as there is but one true English language, is not proved unless it can be shown that a much larger proportion of the Indians who use signs at all, than present researches show to be the case, use identically the same signs to express the same ideas. It would also seem necessary to the parallel that the signs so used should be absolute, if not arbitrary, as are the words of an oral language, and not independent of preconcert and self-interpreting at the instant of their invention or first exhibition, as all true signs must originally have been and still measurably remain. All Indians, as all gesturing men, have many natural signs in common and many others which are now conventional. The conventions by which the latter were established occurred during long periods, when the tribes forming them were so separated as to have established altogether diverse customs and mythologies, and when the several tribes were with such different environment as to have formed varying conceptions needing appropriate sign expression. The old error that the North American Indians constitute one homogeneous race is now abandoned. Nearly all the characteristics once alleged as segregating them from the rest of mankind have proved not to belong to the whole of the pre-Columbian population, but only to those portions of it first explored. The practice of scalping is not now universal, even among the tribes least influenced by civilization, if it ever was, and therefore the cultivation of the scalp-lock separated from the rest of the hair of the head, or with the removal of all other hair, is not a general feature of their appearance. The arrangement of the hair is so different among tribes as to be one of the most convenient modes for their pictorial distinction. The war paint, red in some tribes, was black in others; the mystic rites of the calumet were in many regions unknown, and the use of wampum was by no means extensive. The wigwam is not the type of native dwellings, which show as many differing forms as those of Europe. In color there is great variety, and even admitting that the term “race” is properly applied, no competent observer would characterize it as red, still less copper-colored. Some tribes differ from each other in all respects nearly as much as either of them do from the lazzaroni of Naples, and more than either do from certain tribes of Australia. It would therefore be expected, as appears to be the case, that the conventional signs of different stocks and regions differ as do the words of English, French, and German, which, nevertheless, have sprung from the same linguistic roots. No one of those languages is a dialect of any of the others; and although the sign systems of the several tribes have greater generic unity with less specific variety than oral languages, no one of them is necessarily the dialect of any other.

Instead, therefore, of admitting, with present knowledge, that the signs of our Indians are “identical” and “universal,” it is the more accurate statement that the systematic attempt to convey meaning by signs is universal among the Indians of the Plains, and those still comparatively unchanged by civilization. Its successful execution is by an art, which, however it may have commenced as an instinctive mental process, has been cultivated, and consists in actually pointing out objects in sight not only for designation, but for application and predication, and in suggesting others to the mind by action and the airy forms produced by action. To insist that sign language is uniform were to assert that it is perfect—”That faultless monster that the world ne’er saw.”

Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared with that Among Other Peoples and Deaf-Mutes. 1881

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