Is the Indian System Special and Peculiar? – Sign Language

This inquiry is closely connected with the last. If the system of signs was invented here in the correct sense of that term, and by a known and existing tribe, it is probable that it would not be found prevailing in any important degree where the influence of the inventors could not readily have penetrated. An affirmative answer to the question also presupposes the same answer to another question, viz, whether there is any one uniform system among the North American Indians which can therefore be compared with any other system. This last inquiry will be considered in its order. In comparing the system as a whole with others, the latter are naturally divided into signs of speaking men foreign to America and those of deaf-mutes.

Comparison with Foreign Signs

The generalization of Tylor that “gesture language is substantially the same among savage tribes all over the world,” interpreted by his remarks in another connection, is understood as referring to their common use of signs, and of signs formed on the same principles, but not of precisely the same signs to express the same ideas. In this sense of the generalization the result of the writer’s study not only sustains it, but shows a surprising number of signs for the same idea which are substantially identical, not only among savage tribes, but among all peoples that use gesture signs with any freedom. Men, in groping for a mode of communication with each other, and using the same general methods, have been under many varying conditions and circumstances which have determined differently many conceptions and their semiotic execution, but there have also been many of both which were similar. Our Indians have no special superstition concerning the evil-eye like the Italians, nor have they been long familiar with the jackass so as to make him emblematical of stupidity; therefore signs for these concepts are not cisatlantic, but even in this paper many are shown which are substantially in common between our Indians and Italians. The large collection already obtained, but not now published, shows many others identical, not only with those of the Italians and the classic Greeks and Romans, but of other peoples of the Old World, both savage and civilized. The generic uniformity is obvious, while the occasion of specific varieties can be readily understood.

Comparison with Deaf-Mute Signs

The Indians who have been shown over the civilized East have often succeeded in holding intercourse, by means of their invention and application of principles in what may be called the voiceless mother utterance, with white deaf-mutes, who surely have no semiotic code more nearly connected with that attributed to the plain-roamers than is derived from their common humanity. They showed the greatest pleasure in meeting deaf-mutes, precisely as travelers in a foreign country are rejoiced to meet persons speaking their language, with whom they can hold direct communication without the tiresome and often suspected medium of an interpreter. When they met together they were found to pursue the same course as that noticed at the meeting of deaf-mutes who were either not instructed in any methodical dialect or who had received such instruction by different methods. They often disagreed in the signs at first presented, but soon understood them, and finished by adopting some in mutual compromise, which proved to be those most strikingly appropriate, graceful, and convenient; but there still remained in some cases a plurality of fitting signs for the same idea or object. On one of the most interesting of these occasions, at the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, in 1873, it was remarked that the signs of the deaf-mutes were much more readily understood by the Indians, who were Absaroka or Crows, Arapahos, and Cheyennes, than were theirs by the deaf-mutes, and that the latter greatly excelled in pantomimic effect. This need not be surprising when it is considered that what is to the Indian a mere adjunct or accomplishment is to the deaf-mute the natural mode of utterance, and that there is still greater freedom from the trammel of translating words into action—instead of acting the ideas themselves—when, the sound of words being unknown, they remain still as they originated, but another kind of sign, even after the art of reading is acquired, and do not become entities as with us. The “action, action, action,” of Demosthenes is their only oratory, not the mere heightening of it, however valuable.

On March 6, 1880, the writer had an interesting experience in taking to the National Deaf-Mute College at Washington seven Utes (which tribe, according to report, is unacquainted with sign language), among whom were Augustin, Alejandro, Jakonik, Severio, and Wash. By the kind attention of President Gallaudet a thorough test was given, an equal number of deaf-mute pupils being placed in communication with the Indians, alternating with them both in making individual signs and in telling narratives in gesture, which were afterwards interpreted in speech by the Ute interpreter and the officers of the college. Notes of a few of them were taken, as follows:


Among the signs was that for squirrel, given by a deaf-mute. The right hand was placed over and facing the left, and about four inches above the latter, to show the height of the animal; then the two hands were held edgewise and horizontally in front, about eight inches apart (showing length); then imitating the grasping of a small object and biting it rapidly with the incisors, the extended index was pointed upward and forward (in a tree).

This was not understood, as the Utes have no sign for the tree squirrel, the arboreal animal not being now found in their region.


Deaf-mute sign for jack-rabbit: The first two fingers of each hand extended (the remaining fingers and thumbs closed) were placed on either side of the head, pointing upward; then arching the hands, palm down, quick, interrupted, jumping movements forward were made.

This was readily understood.

The signs for the following narrative were given by a deaf-mute: When he was a boy he mounted a horse without either bridle or saddle, and as the horse began to go he grasped him by the neck for support; a dog flew at the horse, began to bark, when the rider was thrown off and considerably hurt.


In this the sign for dog was as follows: Pass the arched hand forward from the lower part of the face, to illustrate elongated nose and mouth, then with both forefingers extended, remaining fingers and thumbs closed, place them upon either side of the lower jaw, pointing upward, to show lower canines, at the same time accompanying the gesture with an expression of withdrawing the lips so as to show the teeth snarling; then, with the fingers of the right hand extended and separated throw them quickly forward and slightly upward (voice or talking).

This sign was understood to mean bear, as that for dog is different among the Utes, i.e., by merely showing the height of the dog and pushing the flat hand forward, finger-tips first.

Another deaf-mute gestured to tell that when he was a boy he went to a melon-field, tapped several melons, finding them to be green or unripe; finally reaching a good one he took his knife, cut a slice, and ate it. A man made his appearance on horseback, entered the patch on foot, found the cut melon, and detecting the thief, threw the melon towards him, hitting him in the back, whereupon he ran away crying. The man mounted and rode off in an opposite direction.

All of these signs were readily comprehended, although some of the Indians varied very slightly in their translation.

When the Indians were asked whether, if they (the deaf-mutes) were to come to the Ute country they would be scalped, the answer was given, “Nothing would be done to you; but we would be friends,” as follows:

The palm of the right hand was brushed toward the right over that of the left (nothing), and the right hand made to grasp the palm of the left, thumbs extended over and lying upon the back of the opposing hand.

This was readily understood by the deaf-mutes.

Deaf-mute sign of milking a cow and drinking the milk was fully and quickly understood.

The narrative of a boy going to an apple-tree, hunting for ripe fruit and filling his pockets, being surprised by the owner and hit upon the head with a stone, was much appreciated by the Indians and completely understood.

Smoke, Covered Wagon, Cars

A deaf-mute asked Alejandro how long it took him to come to Washington from his country. He replied by placing the index and second finger of the right hand astride the extended forefinger (others closed) of the left; then elevating the fingers of the left hand (except thumb and forefinger) back forward (three); then extending the fingers of both hands and bringing them to a point, thumbs resting on palmar sides and extended, placing the hands in front of the body, the tips opposite the opposing wrist, and about four inches apart; then, revolving them in imitation of wheels, he elevated the extended forefinger of the left hand (one); then placing the extended flat hands, thumbs touching, the backs sloping downward towards the respective right and left sides, like the roof of a house; then repeating the sign of wheels as in the preceding, after which the left hand was extended before the body, fingers toward the right, horizontal, palm down and slightly arched, the right wrist held under it, the fingers extending upward beyond it, and quickly and repeatedly snapped upward (smoke); the last three signs being covered —wagon —smoke, i.e., cars; then elevating four fingers of the left hand (four).

Translation.— Traveled three days on horseback, one in a wagon, and four in the cars.

The deaf-mutes understood all but the sign for wheel, which they make as a large circle, with one hand.

Another example: A deaf-mute pretended to hunt something; found birds, took his bow and arrows and killed several.

This was fully understood.

A narrative given by Alejandro was also understood by the deaf-mutes, to the effect that he made search for deer, shot one with a gun, killed and skinned it, and packed it up.

It will be observed that many of the above signs admitted of and were expressed by pantomime, yet that was not the case with all that were made. President Gallaudet made also some remarks in gesture which were understood by the Indians, yet were not strictly pantomimic.

The opinion of all present at the test was that two intelligent mimes would seldom fail of mutual understanding, their attention being exclusively directed to the expression of thoughts by the means of comprehension and reply equally possessed by both, without the mental confusion of conventional sounds only intelligible to one.

A large collection has been made of natural deaf-mute signs, and also of those more conventional, which have been collated with those of the several tribes of Indians. Many of them show marked similarity, not only in principle but often in detail.

The result of the studies so far as prosecuted is that what is called the sign language of Indians is not, properly speaking, one language, but that it and the gesture systems of deaf-mutes and of all peoples constitute together one language—the gesture speech of mankind—of which each system is a dialect.

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

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