Relations to Philology – Sign Language

The aid to be derived from the study of sign language in prosecuting researches into the science of language was pointed out by Leibnitz, in his Collectanea Etymologica, without hitherto exciting any thorough or scientific work in that direction, the obstacle to it probably being that scholars competent in other respects had no adequate data of the gesture speech of man to be used in comparison. The latter will, it is hoped, be supplied by the work now undertaken.

In the first part of this paper it was suggested that signs played an important part in giving meaning to spoken words. Philology, comparing the languages of earth in their radicals, must therefore include the graphic or manual presentation of thought, and compare the elements of ideography with those of phonics. Etymology now examines the ultimate roots, not the fanciful resemblances between oral forms, in the different tongues; the internal, not the mere external parts of language. A marked peculiarity of sign language consists in its limited number of radicals and the infinite combinations into which those radicals enter while still remaining distinctive. It is therefore a proper field for etymologic study.

From these and other considerations it is supposed that an analysis of the original conceptions of gestures, studied together with the holophrastic roots in the speech of the gesturers, may aid in the ascertainment of some relation between concrete ideas and words. Meaning does not adhere to the phonic presentation of thought, while it does to signs. The latter are doubtless more flexible and in that sense more mutable than words, but the ideas attached to them are persistent, and therefore there is not much greater metamorphosis in the signs than in the cognitions. The further a language has been developed from its primordial roots, which have been twisted into forms no longer suggesting any reason for their original selection, and the more the primitive significance of its words has disappeared, the fewer points of contact can it retain with signs. The higher languages are more precise because the consciousness of the derivation of most of their words is lost, so that they have become counters, good for any sense agreed upon and for no other.

It is, however, possible to ascertain the included gesture even in many English words. The class represented by the word supercilious will occur to all readers, but one or two examples may be given not so obvious and more immediately connected with the gestures of our Indians. Imbecile, generally applied to the weakness of old age, is derived from the Latin in, in the sense of on, and bacillum, a staff, which at once recalls the Cheyenne sign for old man, mentioned above, page 339. So time appears more nearly connected with τεινω, to stretch, when information is given of the sign for long time, in the Speech of Kin Chē-ĕss, in this paper, viz., placing the thumbs and forefingers in such a position as if a small thread was held between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, the hands first touching each other, and then moving slowly from each other, as if stretching a piece of gum-elastic.

In the languages of North America, which have not become arbitrary to the degree exhibited by those of civilized man, the connection between the idea and the word is only less obvious than, that still unbroken between the idea and the sign, and they remain strongly affected by the concepts of outline, form, place, position, and feature on which gesture is founded, while they are similar in their fertile combination of radicals.

Indian language consists of a series of words that are but slightly differentiated parts of speech following each other in the order suggested in the mind of the speaker without absolute laws of arrangement, as its sentences are not completely integrated. The sentence necessitates parts of speech, and parts of speech are possible only when a language has reached that stage where sentences are logically constructed. The words of an Indian tongue, being synthetic or undifferentiated parts of speech, are in this respect strictly analogous to the gesture elements which enter into a sign language. The study of the latter is therefore valuable for comparison with the words of the former. The one language throws much light upon the other, and neither can be studied to the best advantage without a knowledge of the other.

Some special resemblances between the language of signs and the character of the oral languages found on this continent may be mentioned. Dr. J. Hammond Trumbull remarks of the composition of their words that they were “so constructed as to be thoroughly self-defining and immediately intelligible to the hearer.” In another connection the remark is further enforced: “Indeed, it is a requirement of the Indian languages that every word shall be so framed as to admit of immediate resolution to its significant elements by the hearer. It must be thoroughly self-defining, for (as Max Müller has expressed it) ‘it requires tradition, society, and literature to maintain words which can no longer be analyzed at once.’… In the ever-shifting state of a nomadic society no debased coin can be tolerated in language, no obscure legend accepted on trust. The metal must be pure and the legend distinct.”

Indian languages, like those of higher development, sometimes exhibit changes of form by the permutation of vowels, but often an incorporated particle, whether suffix, affix, or infix, shows the etymology which often, also, exhibits the same objective conception that would be executed in gesture. There are, for instance, different forms for standing, sitting, lying, falling, &c., and for standing, sitting, lying on or falling from the same level or a higher or lower level. This resembles the pictorial conception and execution of signs.

Major J.W. Powell, with particular reference to the disadvantages of the multiplied inflections in Indian languages, alike with the Greek and Latin, when the speaker is compelled, in the choice of a word to express his idea, to think of a great multiplicity of things, gives the following instance:

“A Ponca Indian in saying that a man killed a rabbit, would have to say: the man, he, one, animate, standing, in the nominative case, purposely killed, by shooting an arrow, the rabbit, he, the one, animate, sitting, in the objective case; for the form of a verb to kill would have to be selected, and the verb changes its form by inflection and incorporated particles to denote person, number, and gender as animate or inanimate, and gender as standing, sitting, or lying, and case; and the form of the verb would also express whether the killing was done accidentally or purposely, and whether it was by shooting or by some other process, and, if by shooting, whether by bow and arrow, or with a gun; and the form of the verb would in like manner have to express all of these things relating to the object; that is, the person, number, gender, and case of the object; and from the multiplicity of paradigmatic forms of the verb to kill, this particular one would have to be selected.” This is substantially the mode in which an Indian sign talker would find it necessary to tell the story, as is shown by several examples given below in narratives, speeches, and dialogues.

Indian languages exhibit the same fondness for demonstration which is necessary in sign language. The two forms of utterance are alike in their want of power to express certain words, such as the verb “to be,” and in the criterion of organization, so far as concerns a high degree of synthesis and imperfect differentiation, they bear substantially the same relation to the English language.

It may finally be added that as not only proper names but nouns, generally in Indian languages are connotive, predicating some attribute of the object, they can readily be expressed by gesture signs, and therefore among them, if anywhere, it is to be expected that relations may be established between the words and the signs.

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

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