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  • Carl Croneberg:Unsung Hero
  • Carey M. Ballard (bio)

I was honored to have the opportunity to meet Carl G. Croneberg, a Deaf pioneer and an unsung hero. Deaf people, sign language users, and linguistic communities have often admiredWilliam C. Stokoe for his work on American Sign Language (ASL), a sentiment with which I completely agree. However, we sometimes forget about the Deaf colleagues who were involved in Stokoe's work, including Croneberg and Dorothy S. Casterline, and were also pioneers of American Sign Language and Deaf culture research.

Carl Gustaf Croneberg was born on April 26, 1930, in a small Swedish town with a population of roughly 2,000 people. He lost his hearing at the age of ten. Because of his deafness, his parents sent him to a Deaf institution. When he arrived at the school for the Deaf, he was in awe to see the other Deaf students using Swedish sign language to communicate with each other. At the school, he acquired and became fluent in Swedish sign language without being formally taught. During high school, he learned English and German from a "correspondence course"—meaning, basically, that Croneberg learned two new languages by reading letters.

In January 1951, Gallaudet University President Leonard M. Elstad traveled through a number of countries, and he met Carl Croneberg in Groningen, in Helsingborg, Sweden. President Elstad was impressed with Carl Croneberg's academic acumen, so Elstad recruited him to [End Page 173]

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Carl Croneberg (left) and William C. Stokoe (right) at the Linguistic Research Laboratory (1962). Gallaudet University Archives.

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Croneberg teaching one of the English courses at Gallaudet University (1964). Gallaudet University Archives.

[End Page 174]

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Croneberg (left), Casterline, and Stokoe.

enroll in Gallaudet University. Croneberg did so in fall 1951 and began learning his fourth language, ASL. As an undergraduate, he was a great scholar and active in extracurricular activities. He received a bachelor's degree in English in 1955 and was hired as an assistant instructor in the English Department.

In 1957, an English Department colleague, William C. Stokoe, admired Croneberg's critical thinking and analysis skills and asked Croneberg to work with him in a research laboratory on a linguistic analysis of ASL. This was to be groundbreaking work; it was the first time somebody recognized that ASL had a linguistic system. In 1965, Croneberg coauthored A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles with Dorothy C. Casterline and William C. Stokoe.

Croneberg's multilingual and multicultural experiences also helped him to expand his perspectives on the Deaf community. Before the trio published their dictionary, Croneberg had traveled around New England and the southeast United States and attended conferences to observe and study Deaf people's norms, social categories, educational backgrounds, economic levels, regional dialects, and other characteristics. Croneberg coined the idea of "Deaf culture" and was the first to produce an ethnographic and sociological analysis of the Deaf community and its regional variations/dialects of ASL, which [End Page 175]

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Carl Croneberg (left) Carey M. Ballard (right), photo taken in December 2018.

he included as appendixes C and D in the Dictionary (1965). In appendix D, Croneberg provided the earliest published analysis of "Black American Sign Language," which he conducted with assistance from the prestigious linguist Dr. Wallace Chafe, whose courses on sociolinguistics, anthropology, and ethnographics Croneberg had taken as a graduate student at Catholic University in the early 1960s.

After Croneberg completed his work on ASL and his ethnographic analysis of the Deaf community, his works drew criticism from members of the Deaf community for decades until people began to accept and take pride in ASL and Deaf culture.

Throughout his career, Croneberg had plans to pursue a PhD in anthropology at Catholic University but was discouraged from enrolling in the program because of his deafness. Despite this experience with audism that that prevented him from his pursuit of a doctorate degree, Croneberg taught in the English Department at Gallaudet University for about thirty-one years, until his retirement in 1986. He is eighty-nine years old...


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