Our Indian Conditions Favorable to Sign Language

In no other thoroughly explored part of the world has there been found spread over so large a space so small a number of individuals divided by so many linguistic and dialectic boundaries as in North America. Many wholly distinct tongues have for an indefinitely long time been confined to a few scores of speakers, verbally incomprehensible to all others on the face of the earth who did not, from some rarely operating motive, laboriously acquire their language. Even when the American race, so styled, flourished in the greatest population of which we have any evidence (at least according to the published views of the present writer, which seem to have been generally accepted), the immense number of languages and dialects still preserved, or known by early recorded fragments to have once existed, so subdivided it that only the dwellers in a very few villages could talk together with ease. They were all interdistributed among unresponsive vernaculars, each to the other being bar-bar-ous in every meaning of the term. The number of known stocks or families of Indian languages within the territory of the United States amounts now to sixty-five, and these differ among themselves as radically as each differs from the Hebrew, Chinese, or English. In each of these linguistic families there are several, sometimes as many as twenty, separate languages, which also differ from each other as much as do the English, French, German, and Persian divisions of the Aryan linguistic stock.

The use of gesture-signs, continued, if not originating, in necessity for communication with the outer world, became entribally convenient from the habits of hunters, the main occupation of all savages, depending largely upon stealthy approach to game, and from the sole form of their military tactics—to surprise an enemy. In the still expanse of virgin forests, and especially in the boundless solitudes of the great plains, a slight sound can be heard over a large area, that of the human voice being from its rarity the most startling, so that it is now, as it probably has been for centuries, a common precaution for members of a hunting or war party not to speak together when on such expeditions, communicating exclusively by signs. The acquired habit also exhibits itself not only in formal oratory and in impassioned or emphatic conversation, but also as a picturesque accompaniment to ordinary social talk. Hon. Lewis H. Morgan mentions in a letter to this writer that he found a silent but happy family composed of an Atsina (commonly called Gros Ventre of the Prairie) woman, who had been married two years to a Frenchman, during which time they had neither of them attempted to learn each other’s language; but the husband having taken kindly to the language of signs, they conversed together by that means with great contentment. It is also often resorted to in mere laziness, one gesture saving many words. The gracefulness, ingenuity, and apparent spontaneity of the greater part of the signs can never be realized until actually witnessed, and their beauty is much heightened by the free play to which the arms of these people are accustomed, and the small and well-shaped hands for which they are remarkable. Among them can seldom be noticed in literal fact— –

The graceless action of a heavy hand— –

which the Bastard metaphorically condemns in King John.

The conditions upon which the survival of sign language among the Indians has depended is well shown by those attending its discontinuance among certain tribes.

Chinook Jargon

Many instances are known of the discontinuance of gesture speech with no development in the native language of the gesturers, but from the invention for intercommunication of one used in common. The Kalapuyas of Southern Oregon until recently used a sign language, but have gradually adopted for foreign intercourse the composite tongue, commonly called the Tsinuk or Chinook jargon, which probably arose for trade purposes on the Columbia River before the advent of Europeans, founded on the Tsinuk, Tsihali, Nutka, &c., but now enriched by English and French terms, and have nearly forgotten their old signs. The prevalence of this mongrel speech, originating in the same causes that produced the pigeon-English or lingua-franca of the Orient, explains the marked scantiness of sign language among the tribes of the Northwest coast.

Where the Chinook jargon has not extended on the coast to the North, the Russian language commences, used in the same manner, but it has not reached so deeply into the interior of the continent as the Chinook, which has been largely adopted within the region bounded by the eastern line of Oregon and Washington, and has become known even to the Pai-Utes of Nevada. The latter, however, while using it with the Oregonian tribes to their west and north, still keep up sign language for communication with the Banaks, who have not become so familiar with the Chinook. The Alaskan tribes on the coast also used signs not more than a generation ago, as is proved by the fact that some of the older men can yet converse by this means with the natives of the interior, whom they occasionally meet. Before the advent of the Russians the coast tribes traded their dried fish and oil for the skins and paints of the eastern tribes by visiting the latter, whom they did not allow to come to the coast, and this trade was conducted mainly in sign language. The Russians brought a better market, so the travel to the interior ceased, and with it the necessity for the signs, which therefore gradually died out, and are little known to the present generation on the coast, though still continuing in the interior, where the inhabitants are divided by dialects.

No explanation is needed for the disuse of a language of signs for the special purpose now in question when the speech of surrounding civilization is recognized as necessary or important to be acquired, and gradually becomes known as the best common medium, even before it is actually spoken by many individuals of the several tribes. When it has become general, signs, as systematically employed before, gradually fade away.

Consult Further:

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

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