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The Discoveries of Dr.William C. Stokoe
College of Southern Nevada
Dr. William C. Stokoe is cited as the father of American Sign Language Linguistics. Gallaudet College hired Stokoe in 1955 as the chair of the English Department where he was first exposed to American Sign Language. Stokoe held both a Ph.D. and a Bachelors in English. Two years after observing the students signing he began researching the tabooed signs. The results were published in 1960 in an article titled "Sign Language Structure". Stokoe set out to prove that American Sign Language meets the full criteria of linguistics phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and use of language to be classified as a fully developed language (Maher, Jane). Up until Stokoe's time these signs were not considered a language but were classified as simplified gestures or broken English. Stokoe and his team continued research and published A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles in 1965 using a new notation to represent signs and went on to publish more articles and texts about signs as a language and the evolution of language as a whole.
Dr. William C. Stokoe is called the father of ASL Linguistics as he was the pioneer researcher of signs in America. He was the most influential person in getting American Sign Language recognized as a true and full language. He challenged the view of signed communication during his early years at Gallaudet and established a system for writing sign language.Stokoe was primarily a linguist and conducted his time at Gallaudet accordingly. He went on to further study the evolution of language as it pertained to infants as well as prehistoric cultures. His different thinking became influential and changed the way deaf people are now viewed.
Gallaudet College hired in 1955 Stokoe as the chair of the English Department where he was first exposed to American Sign Language. Stokoe held both a Ph.D. and a Bachelors in English. Two years after observing the students signing he noticed that there was more language going on than what was popularly believed. Stokoe began research with the help of two assistants started filming people signing and gathering data. It is important to note that Stokoe didn't know any sign when he first arrived at Gallaudet, but quickly discovered the linguistic qualities of signing.
Stokoe received much criticism when he published his article "Sign Language Structure" in 1960. The view of signed languages held a negative connotation. He was encouraged to drop his research by his Gallaudet faculty peers. He was harassed by deaf students, but this did not deter Stokoe from continuing research. Stokoe was assigned to teach English to a class of all deaf students. The class instruction was reproduced in manual signals resembling word for word English however when Stokoe observed the students conversing with one another he found they used an entirely different syntax and form. The signing he saw in class were slow and tedious, the signing he saw outside of class was formed with a rapid pace and fluency.
Deaf students during this time were taught to sign smaller in public spaces as to not attract attention. Deafness was negatively viewed by the outside population as something to be ashamed of. This was the time of oralism. The idea that language required speaking was popular, and because there was nothing being spoken the general public felt that no language was taking place. Signing was thought of as simplified or broken English or as only a collection of gestures.
Stokoe published "A dictionary of American sign language on linguistic principles" in which he used his own notation for describing signs. Stokoe Notation as it was called uses the Latin alphabet as well as other symbols to essentially describe each sign, including the signs location, handshape and movement. The dictionary itself was ordered using Stokoe Notation so that a user may look up a sign without knowing the English meaning, similar to a handshape dictionary. Stokoe Notation is organized in three steps; Tab, Dez, and Sig.
Tab is the location of the sign on the body such as the chin, chest or forehead. Each of these locations use a different letter or symbol. For example the body or trunk is represented using two brackets .
Dez is the handshape. The Stokoe Notation borrows from the American Sign Language alphabet to represent each handshape. Additional modifiers are used to designate a modified handshape such as a "bent V" which uses three dots in superscript to designate the bent form V⃛.
Sig is the movement and is listed in a superscript after the Dez. For example G> represents a G handshape moving to the right direction, this would look like someone pointing at something or interpreted as "that over there". There is a set of additional symbols for Stokoe Notation that include things like circles, spirals and perpendicular markers.
This is an incredibly difficult notation for the average person learning American Sign Language to understand but it pioneered putting signs into a two-dimensional form that could be "written". ASL was still recorded in English gloss during this time and SignWriting had not yet been invented.
Stokoe looked to other cultures that used a system of signs as communication for influence on his study of linguistics. Scott DeLancey and his colleagues at the University of Oregon studied an American Indian Tribe that used a language called Klamath that uses a two part verb system in their voiced communication that suggest that they used a system of signs before the acquisition of speech (Stokoe, Language in Hand). The Assiniboines, a Native American people, use a combination of signs and speech to form complete thoughts. The recipient must understand both the signed and voiced communication to get the whole message. Stories are told about different seasons and how they look using physical movement with the manual signs.
Part of the argument against gestures being used as a communication form was clear contrasts, and that only vocal cords could produce such varied sounds that language required. This idea was challenged again by Stokoe as he observed a conversation at Gallaudet. The question was regarding the health of Percival Hall, a former president of Gallaudet. The response was signed that he was dying, using a slow movement of the hands gradually turning over instead of dead, a quick and abrupt sign with the same motion. The hearing employee didn't understand the sign clearly and the presidents obituary was published before his death. The non-manual features of this sign would have been picked up by a fluent signer who has the optical training to pick up the subtle difference in the sign (Stokoe, Language In Hand 39-41). The equivalent is very commonly found in English song lyrics as well as in everyday conversation. The speaker must articulate clearly so that the meaning does not become unclear just as the receiver must use contextual clues to grasp the message. Words or word-phrases that sound similar to other words or word-phrases are called homophones. Examples of this include ate/eight, prince/prints, male/mail. A similar feature in ASL is the facial expression during the signing of "enjoy". The signer must make a naturally pleased or happy facial expression or the sign changes meaning. If the signer made disgusted facial expression the receiver may interpret that as "did not enjoy" or as having a bad time.
Stokoe heavily researched the evolution of language and was often challenged for his ideas. Stokoe believed that our modern day language had evolved from gestures and symbols. Starting in the present day English we can trace the evolution back to Shakespeare, Chaucer, and King Alfred. Speaking in Old English in present day would result in unintelligible speech. Tracing back an island tribe Stokoe discovered a sign for "elder brother" that mimed pulling out a tooth. The origin of this sign came from an earlier time when a deaf individual did have an older brother who pulled out his tooth. From then on, that sign slipped into mainstream use to represent an older brother.
Stokoe also focused on development of language in infants and babies. Research by Virginia Volterra and Jana Iverson indicates that all children, hearing and deaf, communicate with gestures for months before they use the language (spoken or signed) of their caretakers (Volterra). Further research by Goldin-Meadow showed that all babies use some form of gestural language. Babies first learn to point at objects and then begin to symbolize objects using their hands, for example: making a ball shape. Goldin-Meadow's research emphasized that all babies use gestural communication, not just deaf babies or American babies.
A study by Roger Fouts tells an incredible story of an autistic child who was declared "too old to respond to psychological therapy or speech therapy". The boy was nine years old and had been kicked out of three schools when Fouts was introduced to him, the boy couldn't perform the most basic of tasks and was unable to process auditory stimuli and visual stimuli at the same time. He would hide his face while he screamed. Fouts observed the child in a locked room, the child went to the door and tried to open it furiously and with frustration. Fouts went to the door and opened it for the boy and made the sign for open and formed the child's hand into the sign for open. Next the child began to run, and Fouts caught him and showed him the sign for run, as well as formed his hands to mimic the sign. Within two months the boy could form simple phrases like "you me run". Fouts met with the child for a half hour once a week, and a few weeks later the child began to actually speak. The staff was amazed with the progress the child had made in just a short time using signs and gestures. Fouts concluded that there was a path of language development that included first learning signs, then sign phrases, spoken words, then word phrases (Fouts, Next of Kin).
Continuing on the evolution of language Stokoe looked to a study by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. They found that All languages contain terms for black and white, otherwise referred to as light or dark. If a language has three terms for colors, it will contain a term for red. If a language contains four terms it will contain a word for yellow or green, but not both. This continues to include both yellow and green, followed by blue then brown and on to include other colors (Berlin, Brent and Paul Kay). Color does not have an iconic symbol or classifier but belongs to a larger object. Skies are blue, but blue does not always mean the sky. In a Polynesian culture color isn't spoken of, they refer to an object by its effects or other attributes. The study on color is important because it provides a strong argument that the evolution of language came first from signs and then to vocalized speech. Hands are unable to show different colors, but can easily depict light or dark showing sun rising or setting. In the evolution of color terms red becomes the first that a culture will create a word of symbol for because that color is cause for concern whether it be blood of a human or animal.
William Stokoe was a radical thinker and challenged the beliefs of the common opinion. It is clear in his books that he believes in evolution. My favorite passage by Stokoe is about his theory of sign to vocal language evolution.
"Since all this speculation about the origin and evolution of language rests on bits of circumstantial evidence and on a particular way of arguing from them, what of it anyway? What good can it do?" Such knowledge can do a great deal of good; it can change the way people who hear and speak think about people who do not, as I have known ever since discovering more than forty years ago that deaf people have real languages made of visible instead of vocal symbols. This insight has eliminated the prohibition of sign language in some schools for the deaf and allowed at least a toleration of signing…The lie that to be deaf is to be mentally defective may be at last put to rest.
(Stokoe, William C. Language in Hand 125-126)
He wanted to change how linguists and anthropologist viewed language and successfully changed the minds and lives of millions of people with his thoughts. Stokoe's research effectively proved that Deaf individuals were not incapable of thought or language but merely used a different language than hearing people. This brought deaf people closer to equality in the mainstream world.
Fouts, Roger with Stephen Tukel Mills, Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me about Who We Are (New York: William Morrow, 1997).
Gannon, Jack R. Deaf Heritage, National Association of the Deaf, 1981. pp. 365-367.
Jim G. Kyle, Bencie Woll (1988) Sign Language: The Study of Deaf People and Their Language. Cambridge University Press.
Kendon, Adam (1988) Sign Languages of Aboriginal Australia: Cultural, Semiotic and Communication Perspectives, Cambridge University Press.
Lane, Harlan L. Recent Perspectives on American Sign Language. 1980.
Maher, Jane and Oliver Sacks. Seeing in Sign: The Works of William Stokoe. 1996.
Maher, Jane. "What They're Saying about William Stokoe…" Gallaudet University Press. Web. 05 Apr. 2010. <http://gupress.gallaudet.edu/Stokoecompliments.html>.
Stokoe, William. Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech. 2001.
Stokoe, William. Language in Hand. Washington D.C. Gallaudet University Press, 2001. Print.
Stokoe William C, Dorothy C Casterline, Carl G Croneberg (1965) A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, 2nd edition.
Susan Goldin-Meadow and Carolyn Mylander, "Spontaneous Sign Systems Created by Deaf Children in Two Cultures," Nature 391:(1998) 279-81.
Volterra, Virginia and Jana Iverson, "When Do Modality Factors Affect the Course of Language Acquisition?" in Language, Gesture, and Space, ed. Karen Emmorey and Judy Snitzer Reilly (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995), 371-90.