This article examines the linguistic status and potential for revitalization of American Indian Sign Language (AISL), which is considered an endangered language variety. It reports recent findings from the first documentary linguistics fieldwork carried out in over fifty years to focus on the AISL variety, which has been learned and used as a primary or secondary language among members of some American Indian communities since the eighteenth century and possibly earlier. AISL has been maintained over the past several generations chiefly by tribal elders and these efforts have been buoyed by deaf tribal members who have acquired it as a fluent means of communication within their own native communities. While research continues to identify different AISL dialects and the number of remaining native signers, reportedly hundreds of North American Indians still use and understand AISL to varying degrees of proficiency and mutual intelligibility. The AISL variety has been transmitted for many generations and used internationally among dozens of American Indian nations of the United States and Canada; today, representing mainly Algonquian and Siouan language families. Up to now, both deaf and hearing tribal members have served a vital role in the development and transmission of indigenous sign language. Hence, it has been well documented that American indigenous sign language served a wide variety of discourse functions and purposes—ranging from in-group (shared within a single tribe or family) to international communication (shared between different Indian tribes and nations). The article also highlights how documentary linguistics contributes to language preservation and revitalization.


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pp. 535-562
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