- Inside Deaf culture
Inside Deaf culture (IDC) could be thought of as a work in the field of historical and cultural studies of science, but what makes this book unique and of special interest to linguists is the fact that the scientific object of study is language, in this case, American Sign Language (ASL). Another way to look at IDC is as a work of ecological linguistics (Mufwene 2005), because Padden and Humphries have chosen to direct their attention toward six 'moments' in the history of the Deaf community that have had a special impact on shaping the way Deaf people feel about themselves and their language. The notion of the 'voice' in the Deaf community has been present since P&H published their first book on Deaf culture in 1988. In the earlier book, Deaf in America: Voices from a culture, however, the oppositions between hearing and Deaf worlds that were sketched for the reader were somewhat simpler. The material presented was within the domain of ethnography or oral history. The individual stories of Deaf people were a testament to 'the promise of culture' (3), and the underlying message of these stories was that the Deaf community has a cultural perspective distinct from that of mainstream, hearing American culture, and that Deaf culture operates under a separate set of values and norms. In IDC, the message is more complex; namely, the acts of a linguistic community's desire to express itself are as much a social phenomenon as an individual one, and these actions must be explained in a historical and cultural context. Describing and explaining these events, as P&H do brilliantly, requires scientific curiosity, deep reflection, multilayered analysis, and an insider's sensitivity. The sign depicted on the front cover can be glossed as 'OBSCURED' or 'MASKED-OVER' and it is precisely these obscured layers of meaning and value that P&H want to uncover and describe in IDC.
In 1912–1913 the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) formed a Moving Picture Committee to raise money in order to make films capturing important figures in the Deaf community signing in a variety of well-selected contexts—lectures, anecdotes, retelling works of English fiction—and this episode is the subject of one of the chapters of IDC. This endeavor by the NAD was especially urgent because, since 1880 when the Milan Congress declared that using sign language to teach deaf children was inferior to the 'oral' method (one that focuses on speaking and the use of residual hearing as the means of communication), there had been sweeping changes in philosophy and educational policy at deaf schools around the world, including in the US. This meant not only a change in the classroom environment, but also a diminished ability for Deaf teachers to be employed as teachers at deaf schools, and many feared that these new educational policies would change the general patterns of sign language use or stop its use altogether. To spread an appreciation of 'the sign language' as an effective rhetorical medium (ASL was not called 'ASL' until much later), these films were widely distributed to local clubs and Deaf associations. P&H observe that from among the signed works on these tapes, the one by George Veditz makes a more timeless and lasting impression on the viewer than the others. Veditz was one of the people centrally involved in the Moving Picture Committee and also the [End Page 655] outgoing president of the NAD at the time. Using Veditz's speech, many aspects of ASL diachronic change have been documented by ASL linguists Nancy Frishberg (1975) and Ted Supalla (2004). For example, the letters of fingerspelled words move across the signing space as if writing on an invisible page rather than being articulated in a single place as they are now; some familiar signs have changed from being two-handed to one-handed; and some signs demonstrate that a diachronic change has taken place toward articulation along the central or midsagittal line of the body.
One important discovery that...