[Below is a guest post by Arika Okrent.]
This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a celebration for the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Linguistics Department at Gallaudet University. Gallaudet is the world's only university for the deaf. Nearly all the undergraduates at Gallaudet have some kind of hearing loss (a very small number of hearing students may be admitted each year), while the graduate school (offering programs in audiology, deaf education, psychology, and interpretation, among others) has a significant number of hearing students. I received an M.A. in Linguistics from Gallaudet in 1997.
In a speech at the celebration, Bob Johnson, who was hired to start the Linguistics Department in 1981, described how at that time, "everything we knew about ASL (American Sign Language) structure could fit into one course." William Stokoe, then a member of the English faculty at Gallaudet, had published an account of ASL sign structure in 1960, and through the 70s a picture of the systematic nature of ASL had begun to emerge. In 1979, Ed Klima and Ursula Bellugi published their groundbreaking The Signs of Language. The book offered analyses of signed utterances in terms of phonological, morphological, and syntactic processes – that circular movement there? – An aspectual derivational morpheme. That change in handshape? – Phonological assimilation caused by lexical compounding.
There was a still long way to go, but among linguists two things had become clear: (1) sign language was not spoken language; (2) sign language was just like spoken language! Which is to say sign language was not some degraded approximation of spoken language – ASL was not "English on the hands." It had its own structure. At the same time, sign language could be described in terms of the same theoretical tools used to describe spoken languages. This realization was a marvelous articulation of the idea that had been percolating through the previous few decades of linguistic research: linguistics was not just the study of languages, but the study of LANGUAGE. LANGUAGE could be separated from the physical form of its transmission and still be LANGUAGE.
It didn't take too long for the idea of sign language as a full language to take hold among linguists. Like most things linguistic, it still hasn't caught on among non-linguists. Those old confusions –between language and writing, between creoles and their source languages, between sign languages and spoken languages, (or for that matter sign language and pantomime) persist.
When I joined the Gallaudet linguistics program in 1995 confusion about the role and value of ASL was still causing problems in the university. Deaf students come to Gallaudet from many kinds of language backgrounds. Some students don't know any sign because they were late-deafened or have used only lip-reading or an artificial system like "Signed English" that's neither English nor ASL. The official position on language at Gallaudet at the time was a sort of messy broad inclusion. Use whatever works. Speak, sign, speak and sign simultaneously, and try to keep everyone included. This broad inclusion meant that students with the least hearing ability had to settle for partial, incomplete access. Bob, and the members of the linguistics department he founded did not accept this state of affairs. There was only one language that was a full language and that everyone could have access to. That language was ASL, and all linguistics classes would be taught in ASL. Actually there were two languages that all could access. The other one was written English. The Linguistics Department operated as a true bilingual program, keeping the languages separate and well defined.
Gallaudet now describes itself as a bilingual university and emphasizes its support for ASL. The linguistics department added a Ph.D. program in 2002. At the 30 year celebration I saw great presentations on role-shifting in ASL, typology of sign language kinship terms, and features of black deaf signing – all given by deaf researchers, all presented in ASL. Bob Johnson announced his retirement, noting that what we know about ASL structure now would hardly fit into one degree program, much less one class.
I left feeling proud to be a linguist. Proud of our pesky, dogged insistence on descriptivism, without which no one would have ever noticed the elegant system behind what most thought was a weak attempt at ungrammatical English. And proud of the way respect for language – scientific respect, not emotional protect-my-language-from-the-barbarians respect – can lead to respect for people.
[Above is a guest post by Arika Okrent.]