30 years of linguistics at Gallaudet

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[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.]


  1. Jane said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    Thanks for reminding me why I'm proud to be a linguist too. That was beautiful.

  2. Chandra said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

    Wonderful post.

    There are two things that have occurred to me before, and I wonder if they are related:

    1) It is my impression (though I may be wrong) that the Deaf community is, amongst communities built around shared physical or physiological differences, one of the most outspoken about its status as a cultural entity, to the point where deaf individuals are sometimes ostracized for trying to fit into mainstream culture.

    2) I can't think of any other such community that has, by necessity, developed a fully-realized language such as ASL as its main mode of communication.

    Given that language is such a hot-button topic in other marginalized cultural communities, I wonder to what extent the evolution of sign language may have influenced the Deaf community's sense of itself as a cultural entity. People in general seem to have such a visceral attachment to the code they use to express themselves that it becomes deeply embedded in their identity in a very particular way.

  3. Candace said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

    Arika, Your ability to put your perspective – which is dead on, as per usual! – into words is beyond, well, words. Thanks so much!

  4. vicka said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 9:42 pm

    chandra: it's called "asl" because it's particularly "american" sign language. but there are many signed languages, all of which have sprung into existence because there were people with a use for them. for a fascinating and very recent example, consider reading up on nicaraguan sign language.

  5. Jim said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 11:15 pm

    What an elegant and accurate posting of the event. Thanks Arika, it was great to see you.

  6. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 6:51 am

    Thanks, Arika! Gallaudet is certainly a magic place! Deaf signers were one of the first minorities in the world to become vocal about linguistic human rights in a sophisticated way. And Chandra, about the identity issues – Markku Jokinen (still president of the World Federation of the Deaf) has planned for years to finish his PhD about exactly that topic – but just like many other Deaf activists, he has been too busy. I hope he will have the time at some point! Tove

  7. Chandra said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

    @vicka – Yes, I know that there are other signed languages. I meant that I don't know of any other community (outside of the various Deaf communities in different regions of the world) who has developed a language code for the purpose of overcoming a physiological barrier to communication.

  8. vicka said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

    @chandra what other communities were you thinking of, that would not have spontaneous access to existing languages?

  9. Nick said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    @Chandra re: #2: Short of natural language itself I'm assuming?

  10. Chandra said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

    @Nick: Yes.

    @vicka: I wasn't thinking of any other communities – in fact my point is that the Deaf community is in a unique position because it may be the only one of its kind to have developed a fully-realized language for this purpose. Which, to reiterate my original point, may be why it is also unique (in comparison with, for example, blind communities or communities of people with various other physical conditions) in its outspoken defense of itself as a cultural entity.

  11. David said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

    Thanks, Arika, for a great post! I certainly think my hobby interest in linguistics comes from the fact I grew up bilingually in German and DGS (deaf parents), even though nobody would have called it that at the time. Is "The Signs of Language" still current, or would you recommend something more modern? Also, does anyone know of a similar work for Germany's DGS?
    I'm grateful for any pointers!

    @Chandra One point to add to Deaf "exceptionalism" is that it's the only strongly defined cultural entity I know of where children born in the community are not automatically part of the in-group (if they can hear).

  12. Chad Nilep said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

    I join other posters in my admiration for this post and for scholarly work at Gallaudet.

    I do, however, take minor exception to one implication in the conclusion. As a member of the English department in a Japanese university who sometimes code-switches during lectures, I disagree that "a true bilingual program" is one that "keep[s] the languages separate". This seems to echo the skepticism about code switching as flawed bilingualism apparent among linguists in the 1950s and among non-linguists to this day.

  13. Dakota said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 11:54 pm

    @Chandra, The Holy Land Institute for the Deaf in Salt, Jordan is one such institution, although it probably doesn't have the reputation for activism that Gallaudet does.

    Deaf children do develop their own unique "home language" that they use to communicate with family members. They may also learn to read lips. I don't know of any deaf school that encourages lipreading. I know of at least one family that has kept its deaf children out of the deaf schools specifically because they were making a conscious choice to prepare them to fit into mainstream culture.

  14. Rod Johnson said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 8:06 am

    I've always been curious about the properties of written English from native ASL speakers. It seems like the "interlanguage" phenomena must be especially complex there, if you view English as a second language. I've observed some problems in the few of my own students who were deaf, and I read a book a long time ago on the subject. I assume this is a pretty salient issue at Gallaudet—is it an active research area?

  15. Arika said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 11:43 am

    @chandra: I don't know of any physiological barriers to communication that have as much of an impact on language (and therefore, the means of cultural transmission) as deafness. There is indeed something different about the way deafness relates to culture.

    @david: I think Signs of Language is still a great introduction to thinking about sign in linguistic terms. More comprehensive and current is Linguistics of American Sign Language by Clayton Valli and Ceil Lucas. I don't know of any such work on DGS, but there are various research papers out there, some of which are in Visible Variation: Comparative Studies on Sign Language Structure.

    @chad: nothing against code-switching. It goes on at Gallaudet, as it does in any bilingual situation. The need to separate the languages has to do with the unfairness of the typical communication strategy at the time — someone speaking and signing simultaneously. In that case, 100% of the message is coming through in speech. Meanwhile, about 30% of the signs are left out, and the signing is following the word order/general structure of the spoken stream, which makes for confusing, non-grammatical sign. So the deaf people miss out, even if they are fully fluent in English because they don't have access to the English part. There's no problem with code-switchy things like sticking in a lot of fingerspelling or "Englishy" ways of signing as long as everyone can perceive it.

    @rod: It is an active research area, but I don't know much about it. Certainly deaf people can become fully, fluently literate in English. Unfortunately, a history of questionable educational practices and low expectations has made it hard for all to achieve it.

  16. a George said,

    October 28, 2011 @ 11:21 am

    No amount of recognition as a language in its own right will make SL survive the technical developments that have happened these last decades. It is a generational change. I have full respect for those who fight for SL and object to technical development, but Future marches on, inexorably. The study of SL will become the linguistics of another dead language. This is not an issue that is spoken very much about; nobody in this thread has put it as bluntly as I do here.

  17. so-so said,

    October 30, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

    George- I speak from very little thought and less research so I know this is foolish- but I can't agree, unless you know about technology that I don't. There is no technology I know of that can help a deaf person speak in real time fast enough to participate in a conversation. I know that there are gizmos that you can type on that will convert that to speech- but the lag is unworkable for average conversational speeds. So there are lots and lots of (mostly virtual) places where deaf people can participate where they couldn't before because of technology, but normal social interaction is not one of them. With ASL, deaf people can have fully developed social lives (with other deaf people and hearing people who have learned). Without it- I'm not seeing it.

    [(myl) I believe that the "technical developments" in question are the advances in cochlear implants, which (as I understand it) can succeed, in almost all cases, in allowing deaf-from-birth children to learn to speak and to understand speech, and can restore oral communication abilities to most of those who become profoundly deaf later in life.

    There are complex arguments on both sides of this issue, but the fact seems to be that cochlear implants will radically decrease the size of the group for whom signing is the primary or only form of interactive language.]

  18. Linguistics Department 30th Anniversary Celebration | Gallaudet University Linguistics Department said,

    October 31, 2011 @ 3:17 pm

    […] http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3524 […]

  19. Keith M Ellis said,

    November 5, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    "…behind what most thought was a weak attempt at ungrammatical English."

    Did people really believe this? What I know is limited and perhaps I misunderstood, but I thought that ASL evolved from the signed language natively developed by several generations of French deaf (mostly street) children in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My understanding is that the standard Sign in France is obviously closely related to ASL while, in contrast, the standard Sign in the UK is obviously not related. So, between having any knowledge at all of the history of ASL and even a limited comparative familiarity with some prominent signed languages, that ASL is not at all anything like a transliteration of English should have been self-evident. Surely?

    Or was scholarship on both ASL and the history of Deaf cultures so incomplete that recently?

    @Rod, "I've always been curious about the properties of written English from native ASL speakers. It seems like the "interlanguage" phenomena must be especially complex there, if you view English as a second language."

    Per what I just wrote, in isolation, there's no reason why an native ASL "speaker" would have any more or less proficiency in English than any other native speaker of a language other than English.

    Granted, in the real world, an ASL speaker will have lived in and been educated in a world where written English is almost certainly their secondary proficiency. In that context, you might wonder about fluency.

    And it's certainly the case that many deaf people exhibit less fluency in written English than the average literate native English speaker.

    However, as Arika alludes (I suspect, though I may be wrongly inferring), there is a theory about this with regard to language acquisition that might explain this. Oliver Sacks argues this quite passionately in his very good book, "Seeing Voices". Specifically, there are still speech-only "oral" schools for the deaf in the US where Sign is forbidden, and also of course there are many children whose deafness is unrecognized until after the developmental period where intensive language acquisition occurs.

    There's evidence indicating that if something prevents language acquisition from occuring during this period, then language competency in general will be subsequently degraded. Thus, it well may be that deaf children from, say, 9 to 48 months of age, isolated from a language-rich environment, either at home because their deafness is unrecognized, or in a speaking-only "oral" school, will have an impaired facility with language when they subsequently acquire it.

    Sacks argues, off-the-cuff, that the manifest competency in written English displayed by Deaf writers from the period before Alexander Graham Bell's push for "oral" deaf education in the US, and then a subsequent decline in competency in written English among Deaf writers, demonstrates this.

    I, personally, would like believe Sacks's hypothesis because less-than-perfect fluency in written English is too often misconstrued by people who know little about Deaf culture, or ASL, or all the related issues.

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