Modern Use of Gesture Speech – Sign Language

Dr. Tylor says (Early History of Mankind, 44): “We cannot lay down as a rule that gesticulation decreases as civilization advances, and say, for instance, that a Southern Frenchman, because his talk is illustrated with gestures as a book with pictures, is less civilized than a German or Englishman.” This is true, and yet it is almost impossible for persons not accustomed to gestures to observe them without associating the idea of low culture. Thus in Mr. Darwin’s summing up of those characteristics of the natives of Tierra del Fuego, which rendered it difficult to believe them to be fellow-creatures, he classes their “violent gestures” with their filthy and greasy skins, discordant voices, and hideous faces bedaubed with paint. This description is quoted by the Duke of Argyle in his Unity of Nature in approval of those characteristics as evidence, of the lowest condition of humanity.

Whether or not the power of the visible gesture relative to, and its influence upon the words of modern oral speech are in inverse proportion to the general culture, it seems established that they do not bear that or any constant proportion to the development of the several languages with which gesture is still more or less associated. The statement has frequently been made that gesture is yet to some highly-advanced languages a necessary modifying factor, and that only when a language has become so artificial as to be completely expressible in written signs—indeed, has been remodeled through their long familiar use—can the bodily signs be wholly dispensed with. The evidence for this statement is now doubted, and it is safer to affirm that a common use of gesture depends more upon the sociologic conditions of the speakers than upon the degree of copiousness of their oral speech.

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

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