Sign Language Among North American Indians – 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.


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

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