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The Study of Signed Languages

Essays in Honor of William C. Stokoe

David F. Armstrong, Michael A. Karchmer, and John Vickrey Van Cleve, Editors

Publication Year: 2002

In 1999, many of today’s notable researchers assembled at a special conference in honor of William C. Stokoe to explore the remarkable research that grew out of his original insights on American Sign Language. The Study of Signed Languages presents the fascinating findings from that conference. Part 1, Historical Perspectives, begins with a description of the decline of sign language studies in the 1800s. Past research on signed languages and its relationship to language origins theory follows, along with a consideration of modality and conflicting agendas for its study. In Part 2, Language Origins, the first entry intrigues with the possibility that sign language could answer conundrums posed by Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories. The next essay considers how to build a better language model by citing continuity, ethology, and Stokoe’s work as key elements. Stokoe’s own research on the gestural theory of language origins is examined in the section’s closing chapter. Part 3, Diverse Populations, delineates the impact of sign language research on black deaf communities in America, on deaf education, on research into variation in sign language, and even on sign communication and the motor functioning of autistic children and others. In its wide-ranging, brilliant scholarship, The Study of Signed Languages serves as a fitting tribute to William C. Stokoe and his work.

Published by: Gallaudet University Press

List of Contributors

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pp. viii-ix

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Preface: William C. Stokoe and the Study of Signed Languages

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pp. xi-xix

This volume celebrates the work of William C. Stokoe, one of the most influential language scholars of the twentieth century. To understand his impact on both the educational fortunes of deaf people and on the science of language, it is necessary to consider briefly the status of these two related fields in the early 1950s. The almost...

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Introduction: Bill Stokoe: An ASL Trailblazer

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pp. 1-6

I cannot resist starting this volume dedicated to the work of Bill Stokoe with a personal anecdote illustrating an aspect of his character: an aspect that allowed him to become a revolutionary in support of the language rights of deaf people. Back in the 1970s, during my first few years at Gallaudet, Stokoe and I were flying back to Washington from...

Part 1: Historical Perspectives

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pp. 9-11

Commentators often state that Bill Stokoe was the first scholar to recognize deaf people’s signing as a true language, one capable of conveying a broad range of human thought and emotion. This assertion accurately reflects the state of scholarship during the generation in which Stokoe began his work, but it lacks historical perspective. It...

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1. The Curious Death of Sign Language Studies in the Nineteenth Century

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pp. 13-34

William Stokoe inaugurated modern linguistic research in American Sign Language with his pioneering studies at Gallaudet University in the 1950s. However, while sign language was largely ignored by scholars for the first half of the twentieth century, in the previous century inquiry into the nature of sign language was pursued by instructors at...

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2. Historical Observations on the Relationship Between Research on Sign Languages and Language Origins Theory

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pp. 35-52

The Neapolitan philosopher, Giambattista Vico, in his Scienza Nuova of 1744, formulated what was, at that time, a highly original theory of the origin of language, according to which articulate spoken language had its origins, first of all, in the human capacity for imagination or fantasia. Through the fantasia, images were created which, at first, were...

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3. Modality Effects and Conflicting Agendas

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pp. 53-81

Beginning with the work of William Stokoe, scholars studying American Sign Language (ASL) have maintained that ASL is a naturally developed, human language. A number of important social and educational issues depend on this conclusion. The fact that sign languages are produced by the hands, arms, and body and are perceived...

Part 2: Language Origins

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pp. 85-87

When Stokoe began to become interested in the question of language origins in the early 1970s, he was entering a field that had lain fallow, at least with respect to serious scholarship, for a century or more. In the Western world, of course, the primary influence on our thinking about the origin of language has come from the Bible. However, with...

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4. Does Sign Language Solve the Chomsky Problem?

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pp. 89-99

Over the course of several years, when I was preparing to write a book about the role of the hand in human life, I began to formulate the following idea: all humans are born with a brain that expects the hand to be the prime bodily mediator of discovery, invention, and communication (Wilson 1998). I began my book with a simple question that...

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5. Continuity, Ethology, and Stokoe: How to Build a Better Language Model

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pp. 100-117

Our perspective of the world determines how we behave in the world. If we thought the world was flat, we would certainly avoid trying to sail around it. If we thought the earth was the center of the universe, we might try to get to another planet but without much success. While geocentric models are now part of our scientific history, we are...

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6. William C. Stokoe and the Gestural Theory of Language Origins

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pp. 118-130

We are sometimes hesitant to mention beauty in the same breath as science. To many people, beauty seems to lie more in the realm of art. We tell ourselves that science is about objective facts, while art is about subjective qualities such as beauty. The history of science shows that the dichotomy between art and science is false. As David...

Part 3: Diverse Populations

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pp. 133-136

The chapters in this section deal with varied issues and focus on diverse populations. The chapter by Ceil Lucas, Robert Bayley, Mary Rose, and Alyssa Wulf and the chapter by Glenn Anderson both consider the impact of sign language research on communities of users of American Sign Language (ASL). Britta Hansen describes the role of sign...

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7. The Impact of Variation Research on Deaf Communities

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pp. 137-160

Both spoken languages and sign languages exhibit variation. That is, users of spoken languages and sign languages have alternate ways of saying the same thing. Variation is found at all levels of a language. For example, we often see variation in the lexicon of a language, such that in spoken English, some speakers use the word couch while others say...

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8. The Impact of Sign Language Research on Black Deaf Communities in America

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pp. 161-171

The American Deaf community is undergoing a demographic revolution. It is becoming more dynamic, diverse, and multicultural. This is especially true among the young people who will be tomorrow’s leaders— the students who are currently attending elementary and secondary schools. As a group, deaf students are probably more diverse...

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9. Bilingualism and the Impact of Sign Language Research on Deaf Education

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pp. 172-189

In Denmark there are about 4,000 people who are either deaf or severely hard of hearing. Because of their hearing loss, they do not acquire and use spoken and written language in the same way as hearing people. By necessity, most deaf adults have had to become bilingual to greater or lesser degrees. In order to function as members of the majority...

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10. Sign Communication Training and Motor Functioning in Children with Autistic Disorder and in Other Populations

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pp. 190-212

During the 1970s there was a dramatic increase in the use of sign language systems with children and adults who did not speak. Whereas sign communication programs for such individuals were virtually nonexistent when the decade began, by the time Goodman, Wilson, and Bornstein (1978) conducted their national survey later that...

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11. Gesture and the Nature of Language in Infancy: The Role of Gesture as a Transitional Device En Route to Two-Word Speech

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pp. 213-246

Too few people, even scientists, are able to think of language apart from speech, and so it has been difficult to get a perspective on language acquisition and development that includes gestures. If spoken linguistic communication develops from gestural communication then the human species may not be as special as many wish to...

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Concluding Thoughts: The Future of American Sign Language

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pp. 247-261

In an earlier paper (Padden 1990), American Sign Language (ASL) was described as a kind of “collective memory” in which generations of deaf people “remember” the language through using it and passing it down to succeeding generations. This memory was sustained despite the fact that until very recently, there were no recognized grammars of...


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pp. 263-277

E-ISBN-13: 9781563681875
E-ISBN-10: 1563681870
Print-ISBN-13: 9781563681233
Print-ISBN-10: 1563681234

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 32 tables, 12 figures, 22 photographs
Publication Year: 2002

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American Sign Language -- Congresses.
  • Sign language -- Research -- Congresses.
  • Sign language -- Congresses.
  • Deaf -- Education -- Congresses.
  • Deaf -- Means of communication -- Congresses.
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