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Language in Hand

Why Sign Came Before Speech

William C. Stokoe

Publication Year: 2002

In Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech, William C. Stokoe begins his exploration of the origin of human language with a 2400-year-old quote by Democritus: “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” Stokoe capitalizes upon this simple credo in this far-ranging examination of the scholarly topography to support his formula for the development of language in humans: gesture-to-language-to-speech. Intrinsic to this is the proposition that speech is sufficient for language, but not necessary. Chance brought human ancestors down from the trees to the ground, freeing their hands for gesture, and then sign language, a progression that came from the necessity to communicate. Stokoe recounts in Language in Hand how inspiration grew out of his original discovery in the 1950s and ’60s that deaf people who signed were using a true language with constructions that did not derive from spoken English. This erudite, highly engaging investigation calls upon decades of personal experience and published research to refute the recently entrenched principles that humans have a special, innate learning faculty for language and that speech equates with language. Integrating current findings in linguistics, semiotics, and anthropology, Stokoe fashions a closely-reasoned argument that suggests how our human ancestors’ powers of observation and natural hand movements could have evolved into signed morphemes. Stokoe also proposes how the primarily gestural expression of language with vocal support shifted to primarily vocal language with gestural accompaniment. When describing this transition, however, he never loses sight of the significance of humans in the natural world and the role of environmental stimuli in the development of language. Stokoe illustrates this contention with fascinating observations of small, contemporary ethnic groups such as the Assiniboin Nakotas, a Native American group from Montana that intermingle their spoken and signed languages depending upon cultural imperatives. Language in Hand also presents innovative thoughts on classifiers in American Sign Language and their similarity to certain spoken languages, convincing evidence that speech originally copied sign language forms before developing unrelated conventions through usage. Stokoe concludes with a hypothesis on how the acceptance of sign language as the first language of humans could revolutionize the education of infants, both deaf and hearing, who, like early humans, have the full capacity for language without speech.

Published by: Gallaudet University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-xv

When I was very young the certainty of the physical sciences appealed to me. Mendeleev's periodic table showed how elegantly the elements repeated a simple pattern as atoms added electrons one at a time. Newton's laws of motion were as exact as the theorems in my first intellectual love, plane geometry. Little did...

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1. An Idea That Would Not Go Away

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pp. 1-16

The idea that deaf people's signing might be a language aroused bitter opposition in 1960 when I first proposed it, but it wouldn't go away. And when the idea took hold, about a decade later, it began to cause many good things to happen. In its present, developed form, it could be even more beneficial with further...

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2. Chasing the Language Butterfly

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pp. 17-30

It was asking for trouble in the early 1960s to argue that a symbol system without sounds was a genuine language, but it seemed to me a good idea anyway. Once my idea was out in the open, other interesting questions followed. One of these was whether the very first languages would have looked like the languages...

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3. Gesture to Language to Speech

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pp. 31-51

There is no direct evidence as to how language began, but some speculations are better grounded, more susceptible to proof or disproof, than others. Accounts like those in Genesis, for example, may be true; they cannot be disproved. I believe, however, that any scientific theory about the beginning of language has to observe...

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4. Signed Languages and Language Essentials

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pp. 52-66

Although signed languages use attention-attracting visible symbols, and have apparently been used by deaf people throughout history, it has taken a long time for scientists and the public to acknowledge that they are actually languages. Speech and language have usually been equated. Most laypeople, physicians, and...

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5. Language Signs

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pp. 67-77

Hippocrates, a fourth-century B.C. Greek physician, is recognized as the father of semiotics, the discipline that focuses on signs and their ways of signifying. Hippocrates made medicine more of a science when he began interpreting symptoms as signs of what might be ailing his patients. Not just communication and language...

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6. Descartes Thought Wrong

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pp. 78-102

It sometimes seems that much of modern science has been carried on as if man was put into the world to have dominion over it, just as Genesis says. But it is an illusion to believe that by being objective we can describe things exactly as they are. Our minds, thoughts, and languages are part of the expanding universe, subject...

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7. Language Metamorphosis

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pp. 103-118

My original idea that signing can be language has grown into a belief that language began when a human species interpreted gestural signs both semantically and syntactically. The latter is particularly important, for gestures have syntactic power; they are not just visible movements that represent something else. Early...

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8. Language in a Chrysalis

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pp. 119-130

We know that language is able to express more things in heaven and earth than anyone person can imagine. Language is also able to express everything that scientists have found, everything that science fiction writers can imagine, everything that poets have said, and most wonderfully, all that we, they, or anyone else may...

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9. Emerging from the Cocoon

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pp. 131-146

Thus far, these pages have suggested that language began when visible gestures were used to represent the actions of beings or changes in the state or location of objects. This conclusion, in turn, however, raises an equally searching query: How and why would visible language signs have relinquished their function to vocal...

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10. Families of Signed Languages

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pp. 147-161

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first use of philology as "the study of languages" dates from 1716 and the use of linguistics for the same meaning dates from 1855. Linguistics today is a multi-discipline. Cognitive linguists study the relation of language to brain structure and function; sociolinguists examine the effects of contacts...

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11. Languages in Parallel

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pp. 162-175

Before spoken language carved in stone or written on parchment and paper helped to make cities, states, and empires possible, persons in the act of speaking conveyed meaning with more than the vowel and consonant sounds their voices made—which is all that writing records. During the long period before writing...

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12. Visible Verbs Become Spoken

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pp. 176-192

Many movements that humans see naturally suggest something other than themselves. This is a legacy from the remotest time. Among animals, movements of prey and predator give each an indication of what may happen next and a basis for choosing their own actions. As species evolved, the movements that could be...

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13. A Difference That Makes a Difference

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pp. 193-201

The argument presented so far may be summarized this way: mimetic representations would have externalized human conceptions of creatures and things and happenings. One kind of representation—a hand and its movement—serendipitously connected active creatures with their actions, or things with the changes...


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pp. 203-214


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pp. 215-221


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pp. 223-227

E-ISBN-13: 9781563682124
E-ISBN-10: 1563682125
Print-ISBN-13: 9781563681035
Print-ISBN-10: 156368103X

Page Count: 246
Illustrations: 1 table, 33 sign illustrations
Publication Year: 2002