Sign Language Among North American Indians – 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 Saviour 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 gesturers 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.

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

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