Notable Points for Further Researches – Sign Language

It is considered desirable to indicate some points to which for special reasons the attention of collaborators for the future publication on the general subject of sign language may be invited. These now follow:

Invention of New Signs

It is probable that signs will often be invented by individual Indians who may be pressed for them by collectors to express certain ideas, which signs of course form no part of any current language; but while that fact should, if possible, be ascertained and reported, the signs so invented are not valueless merely because they are original and not traditional, if they are made in good faith and in accordance with the principles of sign formation. Less error will arise in this direction than from the misinterpretation of the idea intended to be conveyed by spontaneous signs. The process resembles the coining of new words to which the higher languages owe their copiousness. It is observed in the signs invented by Indians for each new product of civilization brought to their notice.

An interesting instance is in the sign for steamboat, made at the request of the writer by White Man (who, however, did not like that sobriquet and announced his intention to change his name to Lean Bear), an Apache, in June, 1880, who had a few days before seen a steamboat for the first time. After thinking a moment he gave an original sign, described as follows:

Make the sign for water, by placing the flat right hand before the face, pointing upward and forward, the back forward, with the wrist as high as the nose; then draw it down and inward toward the chin; then with both hands indicate the outlines of a horizontal oval figure from before the body back to near the chest (being the outline of the deck); then place both flat hands, pointing forward, thumbs higher than the outer edges, and push them forward to arms’-length (illustrating the powerful forward motion of the vessel).

An original sign for telegraph is given in Natci’s Narrative, infra.

An Indian skilled in signs, as also a deaf-mute, at the sight of a new object, or at the first experience of some new feeling or mental relation, will devise some mode of expressing it in pantomimic gesture or by a combination of previously understood signs, which will be intelligible to others, similarly skilled, provided that they have seen the same objects or have felt the same emotions. But if a number of such Indians or deaf-mutes were to see an object—for instance an elephant—for the first time, each would perhaps hit upon a different sign, in accordance with the characteristic appearance most striking to him. That animal’s trunk is generally the most attractive lineament to deaf-mutes, who make a sign by pointing to the nose and moving the arm as the trunk is moved. Others regard the long tusks as the most significant feature, while others are struck by the large head and small eyes. This diversity of conception brings to mind the poem of “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” which with true philosophy in an amusing guise explains how the sense of touch led the “six men of Indostan” severally to liken the animal to a wall, spear, snake, tree, fan, and rope. A consideration of invented or original signs, as showing the operation of the mind of an Indian or other uncivilized gesturer, has a psychologic interest, and as connected with the vocal expression, often also invented at the same time, has further value.

Danger of Symbolic Interpretation

In the examination of sign language it is important to form a clear distinction between signs proper and symbols. The terms signs and symbols are often used interchangeably, but with liability to misconstruction, as many persons, whether with right or wrong lexical definition, ascribe to symbols an occult and mystic signification. All characters in Indian picture-writing have been loosely styled symbols, and, as there is no logical distinction, between the characters impressed with enduring form and when merely outlined in the ambient air, all Indian gestures, motions, and attitudes might with equal appropriateness be called symbolic. While, however, all symbols come under the generic head of signs, very few signs are in accurate classification symbols. S.T. Coleridge has defined a symbol to be a sign included in the idea it represents. This may be intelligible if it is intended that an ordinary sign is extraneous to the concept and, rather than suggested by it, is invented to express it by some representation or analogy, while a symbol may be evolved by a process of thought from the concept itself; but it is no very exhaustive or practically useful distinction. Symbols are less obvious and more artificial than mere signs, require convention, are not only abstract, but metaphysical, and often need explanation from history, religion, and customs. They do not depict but suggest subjects; do not speak directly through the eye to the intelligence, but presuppose in the mind knowledge of an event or fact which the sign recalls. The symbols of the ark, dove, olive branch, and rainbow would be wholly meaningless to people unfamiliar with the Mosaic or some similar cosmology, as would be the cross and the crescent to those ignorant of history. The last named objects appeared in the class of emblems when used in designating the conflicting powers of Christendom and Islamism. Emblems do not necessarily require any analogy between the objects representing, and the objects or qualities represented, but may arise from pure accident. After a scurrilous jest the beggar’s wallet became the emblem of the confederated nobles, the Gueux of the Netherlands; and a sling, in the early minority of Louis XIV, was adopted from the refrain of a song by the Frondeur opponents of Mazarin. The portraiture of a fish, used, especially by the early Christians, for the name and title of Jesus Christ was still more accidental, being, in the Greek word ιχθυς, an acrostic composed of the initials of the several Greek words signifying that name and title. This origin being unknown to persons whose religious enthusiasm was as usual in direct proportion to their ignorance, they expended much rhetoric to prove that there was some true symbolic relation between an actual fish and the Savior of men. Apart from this misapplication, the fish undoubtedly became an emblem of Christ and of Christianity, appearing frequently on the Roman catacombs and at one time it was used hermeneutically.

The several tribal signs for the Sioux, Arapahos, Cheyennes, &c., are their emblems precisely as the star-spangled flag is that of the United States, but there is nothing symbolic in any of them. So the signs for individual chiefs, when not merely translations of their names, are emblematic of their family totems or personal distinctions, and are no more symbols than are the distinctive shoulder-straps of army officers. The crux ansata and the circle formed by a snake biting its tail are symbols, but consensus as well as invention was necessary for their establishment, and the Indians have produced nothing so esoteric, nothing which they intended for hermeneutic as distinct from descriptive or mnemonic purposes. Sign language can undoubtedly be and is employed to express highly metaphysical ideas, but to do that in a symbolic system requires a development of the mode of expression consequent upon a similar development of the mental idiocrasy of the gestures far beyond any yet found among historic tribes north of Mexico. A very few of their signs may at first appear to be symbolic, yet even those on closer examination will probably be relegated to the class of emblems.

The point urged is that while many signs can be used as emblems and both can be converted by convention into symbols or be explained as such by perverted ingenuity, it is futile to seek for that form of psychologic exuberance in the stage of development attained by the tribes now under consideration. All predetermination to interpret either their signs or their pictographs on the principles of symbolism as understood or pretended to be understood by its admirers, and as are sometimes properly applied to Egyptian hieroglyphs, results in mooning mysticism. This was shown by a correspondent who enthusiastically lauded the Dakota Calendar (edited by the present writer, and which is a mere figuration of successive occurrences in the history of the people), as a numerical exposition of the great doctrines of the Sun religion in the equations of time, and proved to his own satisfaction that our Indians preserved hermeneutically the lost geometric cultus of pre-Cushite scientists.

Another exhibition of this vicious practice was recently made in the interpretation of an inscribed stone alleged to have been unearthed near Zanesville, Ohio. Two of the characters were supposed, in liberal exercise of the imagination, to represent the Α and Ω of the Greek alphabet. At the comparatively late date when the arbitrary arrangement of the letters of that alphabet had become fixed, the initial and concluding letters might readily have been used to represent respectively the beginning and the end of any series or number of things, and this figure of speech was employed in the book of Revelations. In the attempted interpretation of the inscription mentioned, which was hawked about to many scientific bodies, and published over the whole country, the supposed alpha and omega were assumed to constitute a universal as well as sacred symbol for the everlasting Creator. The usual menu of Roman feasts, commencing with eggs and ending with apples, was also commonly known at the time when the book of Revelations was written, and the phrase “ab ovo usque ad mala” was as appropriate as “from alpha to omega” to express “from the beginning to the end.” In deciphering the stone it would, therefore, be as correct in principle to take one of its oval and one of its round figures, call them egg and apple, and make them the symbols of eternity. In fact, not depending wholly for significance upon the order of courses of a feast or the accident of alphabetical position, but having intrinsic characteristics in reference to the origin and fruition of life, the egg and apple translation, would be more acceptable to the general judgment, and it is recommended to enthusiasts who insist on finding symbols where none exist.

Signs Used by Women and Children

For reasons before given it is important to ascertain the varying extent of familiarity with sign language among the members of the several tribes, how large a proportion possesses any skill in it, and the average amount of their vocabulary. It is also of special interest to learn the degree to which women become proficient, and the age at which children commence its practice; also whether they receive systematic instruction in it. The statement was made by Titchkemátski that the Kaiowa and Comanche women know nothing of sign language, while the Cheyenne women are versed in it. As he is a Cheyenne, however, he may not have a large circle of feminine acquaintances beyond his own tribe, and his negative testimony is not valuable. Rev. A.J. Holt, from large experience, asserts that the Kaiowa and Comanche women do know and practice sign language, though the Cheyenne either are more familiar with it than the Kaiowa or have a greater degree of expertness. The Comanche women, he says, are the peers of any sign-talkers. Colonel Dodge makes the broad assertion that even among the Plains tribes only the old, or at least middle-aged, men use signs properly, and that he has not seen any women or even young men who were at all reliable in signs. He gives this statement to show the difficulty in acquiring sign language; but it is questionable if the fact is not simply the result of the rapid disuse of signs, in many tribes, by which, cause women, not so frequently called upon to employ them, and the younger generation, who have had no necessity to learn them, do not become expert. Disappearing Mist, as before mentioned, remembers a time when the Iroquois women and children used signs more than the men.

It is also asserted, with some evidence, that the signs used by males and females are different, though mutually understood, and some minor points for observation may be indicated, such as whether the commencement of counting upon the fingers is upon those of the right or the left hand, and whether Indians take pains to look toward the south when suggesting the course of the sun, which would give the motion from left to right.


A suggestion has been made by a correspondent that some secret signs of affiliation are known and used by the members of the several associations, religious and totemic, which have been often noticed among several Indian tribes. No evidence of this has been received, but the point is worth attention.

Positive Signs Rendered Negative

In many cases positive signs to convey some particular idea are not reported, and in their place a sign with the opposite signification is given, coupled with the sign of negation. In other words, the only mode of expressing the intended meaning is supposed to be by negation of the reverse of what it is desired to describe. In this manner “fool—no,” would be “wise,” and “good—no,” would be “bad.” This mode of expression is very frequent as a matter of option when the positive signs are in fact also used. The reported absence of positive signs for the ideas negatived is therefore often made with as little propriety as if when an ordinary speaker chose to use the negative form “not good,” it should be inferred that he was ignorant of the word “bad.” It will seldom prove, on proper investigation, that where sign language has reached and retained any high degree of development it will show such poverty as to require the expedient of negation of an affirmative to express an idea which is intrinsically positive.

Details of Positions of Fingers

The signs of the Indians appear to consist of motions more often than of positions—a fact enhancing the difficulty both of their description and illustration—and the motions when not designedly abbreviated are generally large, free, and striking, seldom minute. It seems also to be the general rule among Indians as among deaf-mutes that the point of the finger is used to trace outlines and the palm of the hand to describe surfaces. From an examination of the identical signs made to each other for the same object by Indians of the same tribe and band, they appear to make many gestures with little regard to the position of the fingers and to vary in such arrangement from individual taste. Some of the elaborate descriptions, giving with great detail the attitude of the fingers of any particular gesturer and the inches traced by his motions, are of as little necessity as would be, when quoting a written word, a careful reproduction of the flourishes of tailed letters and the thickness of down-strokes in individual chirography. The fingers must be in some position, but that is frequently accidental, not contributing to the general and essential effect. An example may be given in the sign for white man which Medicine Bull, infra, page 491, made by drawing the palmar surface of the extended index across the forehead, and in Lean Wolf’s Complaint, infra, page 526, the same motion is made by the back of the thumb pressed upon the middle joint of the index, fist closed. The execution as well as the conception in both cases was the indication of the line of the hat on the forehead, and the position of the fingers in forming the line is altogether immaterial. There is often also a custom or “fashion” in which not only different tribes, but different persons in the same tribe, gesture the same sign with different degrees of beauty, for there is calligraphy in sign language, though no recognized orthography. It is nevertheless better to describe and illustrate with unnecessary minuteness than to fail in reporting a real distinction. There are, also, in fact, many signs formed by mere positions of the fingers, some of which are abbreviations, but in others the arrangement of the fingers in itself forms a picture. An instance of the latter is one of the signs given for the bear, viz.: Middle and third finger of right hand clasped down by the thumb, fore and little finger extended crooked downward. See Extracts from Dictionary, infra. This reproduction, of the animals peculiar claws, with the hand and in any position relative to the body, would suffice without the pantomime of scratching in the air, which is added only if the sign without it should not be at once comprehended.

Motions Relative to Parts of the Body

The specified relation of the positions and motions of the hands to different parts of the body is essential to the formation and description of many signs. Those for speak, hear, and see, which must be respectively made relative to the mouth, ear and eye, are manifest examples; and there are others less obviously dependent upon parts of the body, such as the heart or head, which would not be intelligible without apposition. There are also some directly connected with height from the ground and other points of reference. In, however, a large proportion of the signs noted the position of the hands with reference to the body can be varied or disregarded. The hands making the motions can be held high or low, as the gesturer is standing or sitting, or the person addressed is distant or near by. These variations have been partly discussed under the head of abbreviations. While descriptions made with great particularity are cumbrous, it is desirable to give the full detail of that gesture which most clearly carries out the generic conception, with, if possible, also the description of such deviations and abbreviations as are most confusing. For instance, it is well to explain that signs for yes and no, described with precise detail as in Extracts from Dictionary, infra, are also often made by an Indian when wrapped in his blanket with only a forefinger protruding, the former by a mere downward and the latter by a simple outward bend of that finger. An example may be also taken from the following sign for lie, falsehood, made by an Ankara, Fig. 233. in which the separated index and second fingers are moved sidewise in a downward line near but below the mouth, which may be compared with other executions of the motion with the same position of the fingers directly forward from the mouth, and with that given in Lean Wolf’s Complaint, illustrated on page 528, in which the motion is made carelessly across the body. The original sign was undoubtedly made directly from the mouth, the conception being “two tongues,” two accounts or opposed statements, one of which must be false, but the finger-position coming to be established for two tongues has relation to the original conception whether or not made near or in reference to the mouth, the latter being understood.

Fig. 233
Fig. 233

It will thus be seen that sometimes the position of the fingers is material as forming or suggesting a figure without reference to motion, while in other cases the relative position of the hands to each other and to parts of the body are significant without any special arrangement of the fingers. Again, in others, the lines drawn in the air by the hand or hands execute the conception without further detail. In each case only the essential details, when they can be ascertained, should be minutely described.

Suggestions for Collecting Signs

The object always should be, not to translate from English into signs, but to ascertain the real signs and their meaning. By far the most satisfactory mode of obtaining this result is to induce Indians or other gestures observed to tell stories, make speeches, or hold talks in gesture, with one of themselves as interpreter in his own oral language if the latter is understood by the observer, and, if not, the words, not the signs, should be translated by an intermediary linguistic interpreter. It will be easy afterward to dissect and separate the particular signs used. This mode will determine the genuine shade of meaning of each sign, and corresponds with the plan now adopted by the Bureau of Ethnology for the study of the tribal vocal languages, instead of that arising out of exclusively missionary purposes, which was to force a translation of the Bible from a tongue not adapted to its terms and ideas, and then to compile a grammar and dictionary from the artificial result. A little ingenuity will direct the more intelligent or complaisant gestures to the expression of the thoughts, signs for which are specially sought; and full orderly descriptions of such tales and talks with or even without analysis and illustration are more desired than any other form of contribution.

The original authorities, or the best evidence, for Indian signs—i.e., the Indians themselves—being still accessible, the collaborators in this work should not be content with secondary authority. White sign talkers and interpreters may give some genuine signs, but they are very apt to interpolate their own improvements. Experience has led to the apparently paradoxical judgment that the direct contribution of signs purporting to be those of Indians, made by a habitual practitioner of signs who is not an Indian, is less valuable than that of a discriminating observer who is not himself an actor in gesture speech. The former, being to himself the best authority, unwittingly invents and modifies signs, or describes what he thinks they ought to be, often with a very different conception from that of an Indian. Sign language not being fixed and limited, as is the case with oral languages, expertness in it is not necessarily a proof of accuracy in anyone of its forms. The proper inquiry is not what a sign might, could, would, or should be, or what is the best sign for a particular meaning, but what is any sign actually used for such meaning. If any one sign is honestly invented or adopted by any one man, whether Indian, African, Asiatic, or deaf-mute, it has its value, but it should be identified to be in accordance with the fact and should not be subject to the suspicion that it has been assimilated or garbled in interpretation. Its prevalence and special range present considerations of different interest and requiring further evidence.

The genuine signs alone should be presented to scholars, to give their studies proper direction, while the true article can always be adulterated into a composite jargon by those whose ambition is only to be sign talkers instead of making an honest contribution to ethnologic and philologic science. The few direct contributions of interpreters to the present work are, it is believed, valuable, because they were made without expression of self-conceit or symptom of possession by a pet theory.

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

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