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Seeing Language in Sign

The Work of William C. Stokoe

Jane Maher

Publication Year: 2010

In 1955 William C. Stokoe arrived at Gallaudet College (later Gallaudet University) to teach English where he was first exposed to deaf people signing. While most of his colleagues dismissed signing as mere mimicry of speech, Stokoe saw in it elements of a distinctive language all its own. Seeing Language in Sign traces the process that Stokoe followed to prove scientifically and unequivocally that American Sign Language (ASL) met the full criteria of linguistics--phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and use of language--to be classified a fully developed language. This perceptive account dramatically captures the struggle Stokoe faced in persuading the establishment of the truth of his discovery. Other faculty members ridiculed or reviled him, and many deaf members of the Gallaudet community laughed at his efforts. Seeing Language in Sign rewards the reader with a rich portrayal of an undaunted advocate who, like a latter-day Galileo, pursued his vision doggedly regardless of relentless antagonism. He established the Linguistics Research Laboratory, then founded the journal Sign Language Studies to sustain an unpopular dialogue until the tide changed. His ultimate vindication corresponded with the recognition of the glorious culture and community that revolves around Deaf people and their language, ASL.

Published by: Gallaudet University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-xvi

I first met Bill Stokoe in December of 1986. I was nervous about meeting him: he was the man who had cracked American Sign Language (intellectually equivalent to cracking the Rosetta Stone, and emotionally, morally, infinitely more difficult because no one, least of all the deaf, thought of Sign as a real...

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pp. xvii-xviii

This book was originally written as a dissertation for the School of Education of New York University; I would like to thank my advisor (and friend) John Mayher, who helped me to realize the power of narrative as a tool to help educators understand the role they play in their students' lives, both in and outside the...

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pp. 1-5

When the students of Gallaudet University shut down their campus in March of 1988, they were not simply protesting the appointment of a hearing president who knew only a few signs of American Sign Language and who was ignorant of the culture it expressed. They were protesting more than one hundred years of...

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pp. 6-23

The story of the introduction of sign language into the United States and its use in educating deaf people is well known, and it is synonymous with the name of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. In 1807, after graduating from Yale at the age of eighteen, Gallaudet studied law in Hartford. After only one year, however...

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pp. 24-39

From the time of its founding, Gallaudet College held out the promise of a continuation of the success that Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet had achieved by bringing sign language to America and using it to educate deaf students. But changes in the...

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pp. 40-57

Bill Stokoe was not traveling light when he moved from Wells College in Aurora, New York, to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. He was thirty-six years old, and his academic credentials were excellent. But neither he nor Ruth Stokoe had come from wealthy families, and they now had two children to...

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pp. 58-78

Bill and Ruth Stokoe had grown to like Washington, D.C. Within months of their arrival they became members of the St. Andrew's Society of Washington, where Bill played the bagpipes. They joined the society's Scottish country dance group and attended the St. Andrew's Day ball each November. Some...

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pp. 79-100

Although Bill Stokoe had no training as a linguist, within six months of the publication of Sign Language Structure he was invited to join the Washington Linguistics Club and to deliver an address there. "My pleasure in being here and my interest in getting to know all of you," he told the audience, "can perhaps...

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pp. 101-130

As long as George Detmold was dean of Gallaudet, Bill Stokoe was shielded from the politics that affect most institutions. One example of this is Detmold's decision in 1960 to reject President Elstad's demand that Stokoe give up his sign language research: Detmold didn't even mention the incident to Stokoe. Detmold...

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pp. 131-160

Although Bill Stokoe was able to put the English Department episode behind him, and although he was "satisfied and stimulated" in his role as director of the Gallaudet Linguistics Research Lab, the early 1970S were very difficult years for him. In 1970 Helen Stokoe Phillips gave birth to a daughter...

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pp. 161-178

When Stokoe retired at the end of 1984, he was sixty-five and Ruth Stokoe was sixty-four. They were comfortable enough on Bill's pension and Social Security to continue to travel occasionally. They "settled down in retirement," Stokoe says, in the same house they had bought in 1957, but much improved by...


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pp. 179-189


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pp. 191-195

E-ISBN-13: 9781563682438
E-ISBN-10: 1563682435
Print-ISBN-13: 9781563684708
Print-ISBN-10: 1563684705

Page Count: 195
Illustrations: 8 photos
Publication Year: 2010