The Sign Language of Sawmill Workers in British Columbia
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THE SIGN LANGUAGE OF SAWMILL WORKERS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA MartinMeissnerand StuartB. Philpott Illustrations by Diana Philpott This paper describes a language of manual gestures spontaneously created by sawmill workers on the Pacific Coast of Canada to coordinate their technical functions and break the monotony of their work. While many industries seem to provide the conditions for the emergence of such languages, there are virtually no systematic data recorded on them. Our aim here is to contribute substantively to a significant but neglected aspect of sign language studies. The dominant element of the technical culture of the factory is the production process and its requirements and constraints. Organization and technology select channels and frequency of communication, but the production workers shape its style and content. More often than not workers are left to their own devices in developing and maintaining communication systems essential to production, and even less interest is shown in whether they have the means available for non-technical interpersonal expression. When conditions are favourable, the available means for both technical and personal expression include speech. When they are not, workers have three principal ways of communicating non-verbally: through the objects of their work; occasionally through signals such as lights and whistles designed for a minimum of technically necessary information; and through the use of their bodies in gestural signs which are the concern of this paper. The Sawmill Setting. The center of a modern sawmill in British Columbia contains a number of highly-mechanized sawing operations. Each of these is controlled by a sawyer who regulates the feeding and cutting of wood by a system of levers and pushbuttons while at the same time watching the process closely. Sawing operations are connected by an intricate system of remotely controlled transfer chains, roller conveyors, and lift arms through which work pieces are sorted and shifted between operations. Sawmill technology appeared to us similar to that in steel rolling mills and other non-automatic and heavily-mechanized production processes . After a comparison of case studies of industries at this level of Sign Language Studies 9 mechanization from various parts of the world (Meissner, 1969), we approached our first sawmill with the prediction that there would be virtually no verbal communication during work time and some limited system of nonverbal communication to facilitate the coordination of work. We anticipated that this communication would be almost entirely confined to the transmission of technically necessary information. Our first day in the first of three mills in which we conducted the most intensive observations demonstrated already that the first part of our prediction would hold up but the second would not. It was indeed obvious that there was virtually no verbal contact among workers while the mill was running. But the sign communication which unfolded before our eyes was by no means confined to technical necessity. It was rather a language permitting workers not only to communicate technical information efficiently, but also to engage in personal conversations. We were struck by its ingenuity and elegance, and the opportunity for expression and innovation which the language offered under these most unlikely circumstances. During later observations in other sawmills we found similar sign communication, but it was much less elaborate, and more confined to technical uses: our first mill was in some respects unique. Our first purpose had been to study the effects of production technology on the communication practices of workers. This project continued through accounts of technical conditions and frequencies of verbal and nonverbal communication in five sawmills as well as in a larger number of other industrial work places. But the discovery of an unknown language tempted us to enlarge the project to include the systematic collection of signs and the recording of conversations. This inquiry took place in three sawmills, and was concentrated in the largest mill in which the use of the sign language was most elaborate. The work on the general project included observations of every work position in the interior of the sawmill proper and produced technical descriptions and records of all communication during repeated observation periods.1 Field Work. Ours access to the sawmills was formally arranged with management. Once we had signed liability disclaimers and were...


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