Forced and Mistaken Signs – Sign Language

Examination into the identity of signs is complicated by the fact that in the collection and description of Indian signs there is danger lest the civilized understanding of them may be mistaken or forced. The liability to those errors is much increased when the collections are not taken directly from the Indians themselves, but are given as obtained at second-hand from white traders, trappers, and interpreters, who, through misconception in the beginning and their own introduction or modification of gestures, have produced a jargon in the sign, as well as in the oral intercourse. An Indian talking in signs, either to a white man or to another Indian using signs which he never saw before, catches the meaning of that which is presented and adapts himself to it, at least for the occasion. Even when he finds that his interlocutor insists upon understanding and presenting a certain sign in a manner and with a significance widely different from those to which he has been accustomed, it is within the very nature, tentative and elastic, of the gesture art—both performers being on an equality—that he should adopt the one that seems to be recognized or that is pressed upon him, as with much greater difficulty he has learned and adopted many foreign terms used with whites before attempting to acquire their language, but never with his own race. Thus there is now, and perhaps always has been, what may be called a lingua-franca, in the sign vocabulary. It is well known that all the tribes of the Plains having learned by experience that white visitors expect to receive certain signs really originating with the latter, use them in their intercourse just as they sometimes do the words “squaw” and “papoose,” corruptions of the Algonkian, and once as meaningless in the present West as the English terms “woman” and “child,” but which the first pioneers, having learned them on the Atlantic coast, insisted upon treating as generally intelligible.

The perversity in attaching through preconceived views a wrong significance to signs is illustrated by an anecdote found in several versions and in several languages, but repeated as a veritable Scotch legend by Duncan Anderson, esq., Principal of the Glasgow Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, when he visited Washington in 1853.

King James I. of England, desiring to play a trick upon the Spanish ambassador, a man of great erudition, but who had a crotchet in his head upon sign language, informed him that there was a distinguished professor of that science in the university at Aberdeen. The ambassador set out for that place, preceded by a letter from the King with instructions to make the best of him. There was in the town one Geordy, a butcher, blind of one eye, a fellow of much wit and drollery. Geordy is told to play the part of a professor, with the warning not to speak a word; is gowned, wigged, and placed in a chair of state, when the ambassador is shown in and they are left alone together. Presently the nobleman came out greatly pleased with the experiment, claiming that his theory was demonstrated. He said: “When I entered the room I raised one finger to signify there is one God. He replied by raising two fingers to signify that this Being rules over two worlds, the material and the spiritual. Then I raised three fingers, to say there are three persons in the Godhead. He then closed his fingers, evidently to say these three are one.” After this explanation on the part of the nobleman the professors sent for the butcher and asked him what took place in the recitation room. He appeared very angry and said: “When the crazy man entered the room where I was he raised one finger, as much as to say I had but one eye, and I raised two fingers to signify that I could see out of my one eye as well as he could out of both of his. When he raised three fingers, as much as to say there were but three eyes between us, I doubled up my fist, and if he had not gone out of that room in a hurry I would have knocked him down.”

The readiness with which a significance may be found in signs when none whatever exists is also shown in the great contest narrated by Rabelais between Panurge and the English philosopher, Thaumast, commencing as follows:

“Everybody then taking heed in great silence, the Englishman lifted his two hands separately, clinching the ends of his fingers in the form that at Chion they call the fowl’s tail. Then he struck them, together by the nails four times. Then he opened them and struck one flat upon the other with a clash once; after which, joining them as above, he struck twice, and four times afterwards, on opening them. Then he placed them, joined and extended the one above the other, seeming to pray God devoutly.

“Panurge suddenly moved his right hand in the air, placed the right-hand thumb at the right-hand nostril, holding the four fingers stretched out and arrayed in parallel lines with the point of the nose; shutting the left eye entirely, and winking with the right, making a profound depression with eyebrow and eyelid. Next he raised aloft the left with a strong clinching and extension of the four fingers and elevation of the thumb, and held it in line directly corresponding with the position of the right, the distance between the two being a cubit and a half. This done, in the like manner he lowered towards the ground both hands, and finally held them in the midst as if aiming straight at the Englishman’s nose.”

And so on at great length. The whole performance of Panurge was to save the credit of Pantagruel by making fantastic and mystic motions in pretended disputation with the signs given by Thaumast in good faith. Yet the latter confessed himself conquered, and declared that he had derived inestimable information from the purposely meaningless gestures. The satire upon the diverse interpretations of the gestures of Naz-de-cabre (Pantagruel, Book III, chap. xx) is to the same effect, showing it to have been a favorite theme with Rabelais.

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

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