"Baynton's brilliant and detailed history, Forbidden Signs, reminds us that debates over the use of dialects or languages are really the linguistic tip of a mostly submerged argument about power, social control, nationalism, who has the right to speak and who has the right to control modes of speech."—Lennard J. Davis, The Nation
"Forbidden Signs is replete with good things."—Hugh Kenner, New York Times Book Review
An excerpt from|
American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language
Douglas C. Baynton
Savages and Deaf Mutes: Species and Race
At the 1899 convention of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, the president of Amherst College, John M. Tyler, gave the keynote address. America would "never have a scientific system of education," Tyler insisted to his audience of oralist teachers and supporters, "until we have one based on the history of man's development, on the grand foundation of biological history." Therefore, the "search for the…goal of education compels us to study man's origin and development," he contended, and he then outlined for his listeners the two major theories of that origin and development. The first was the creationist theory, the belief that "man was immediately created in his present form, only much better morally, and probably physically, than he now is. Man went down hill, he fell from that pristine condition." The second was the theory of evolution. Tyler felt confident that he could "take for granted" the truth of the theory of evolution and that most of his listeners had "already accepted it."1
Here was a crucial cultural change that separated those first generations of teachers who used sign language from the later generations who attempted to do away with sign language. Most of the former came of age before the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, and had constructed their understanding of the world around the theory of immediate creation. Most of those opposed to the use of sign language belonged to a younger generation whose worldview was built upon an evolutionary understanding of the world.
While natural selection, the mechanism Darwin advanced in 1859 to explain how evolution worked, was not widely accepted in the United States until after the turn of the century, the general idea of evolution itself quickly found widespread acceptance.2 Evolutionary thinking pervaded American culture in the years that oralism became dominant in deaf education; evolutionary analogies, explanations, and ways of thinking were ubiquitous. Psychologists theorized mental illness as evolutionary reversion; criminologists defined the "criminal type" as a throwback; social policies were defended or attacked on the basis of their ostensible likelihood to further or stunt evolution; and even sin came to be described as "a falling back into the animal condition."3 Evolutionary theory set the terms of debate in deaf education as well. It was no coincidence that oralist theory began to transform deaf education in the United States during the same period that evolutionary theory was radically changing how Americans defined themselves and their world. The most important aspect of that change for deaf people and their education occurred in attitudes toward language—specifically, the relative status and worth of spoken and gesture languages.
Tyler continued his address by admonishing his audience of teachers that the recent discovery of the laws of evolution gave them important new responsibilities. For while humanity was "surely progressing toward something higher and better," there was no guarantee that it would continue to do so. Echoing a neo-Lamarckian interpretation of evolutionary theory common at the time, one that was especially popular in the United States, Tyler explained that continued human evolutionary progress would require active effort.4 The human race would continue its "onward and upward" course only if certain "bequests from our brute and human ancestors" were consciously eliminated. Quoting from an unidentified poem, he exhorted his listeners to "Move upward, working out the beast, / And let the ape and tiger die."5
Just as the adult must put away childish things, Tyler explained, so must the human "slough off" that which is "brutish." By studying the characteristics that separated the higher animals from the lower and tracing "how Nature has been training man's ancestors at each stage of their progress," teachers could find vital "hints as to how we are to train the child today." If, in short, they could "find what habits, tendencies, and powers Nature has fostered, and what she has sternly repressed," then they would know what they ought "to encourage, and what to repress." It was crucial, Tyler insisted, to "make our own lives and actions, and those of our fellows, conform to and advance" what had been the upward "tendency of human development in all its past history"—else their "lives will be thrown away."6
Tyler's speech would have held no surprises for his listeners. His ideas were the common coin of both educated and popular discourse by 1899, and nothing he said would have seemed the slightest bit radical or unusual to his audience of oralist teachers. Indeed, it would have confirmed beliefs already firmly held and, to their eyes, explicitly associated with their work—an association that concerned the relationship, for their generation, between speech and gesture, on the one hand, and humanity and lower evolutionary forms on the other.
A common speculation throughout the nineteenth century was that humans had relied upon some form of sign language before they had turned to spoken language.7 The idea seems to have originated with the French philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac in the mid eighteenth century. When Condillac historicized Locke's empiricist epistemology, taking Locke's explanation of the psychological development of the individual and projecting it onto the history of the human species, he naturally directed his attention to the question of the origin and development of language. In the section of his Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge (1746) titled "Of the Origin and Progress of Language," Condillac began with the conventional affirmation that reason and speech were gifts from the Creator to "our first parents." Having satisfied orthodoxy, Condillac then went on to speculate on how language might have been invented by people if by some chance it had been necessary to do so—say, if two untutored children had survived the great flood alone and had had to create a new language between them. Suggesting this hypothetical circumstance allowed Condillac to theorize, on the basis of sensualist philosophy, that such children would first be limited to inarticulate cries, facial expressions, and natural gestures in their communication with each other.8
In the 1746 work, he supposed that gestures—or what he termed the "language of action"—would be confined to the early stages of linguistic and intellectual development, and because of its inferiority would gradually be superseded by speech. As the German historian Renate Fischer has recently pointed out, however, Condillac revised this view markedly in his Grammar of 1775, after having visited the Institution for Deaf Mutes in Paris and conversing with its founder, the Abbé de l'Epée. He had now come to believe that the "language of action" was not necessarily inferior to speech in what it could communicate, and could be "extended sufficiently to render all the ideas of the human mind." What Fischer called "this revolutionary view about the independence of language efficiency from its medium" was also the view of most nineteenth-century American manualists, with this important exception: unlike Condillac, manualist assertions that language was originally a gift from God were not mere formalities but a matter of fundamental belief.9
By the nineteenth century, the question of the origin of language had become an important topic of philosophical discussion, and Condillac's theory on the primacy of gesture had found a great many adherents. Manualist teachers, most of them college-educated men, were well aware of the discussion. As experts on sign language, they were naturally interested in the possibility that gestures preceded speech, and frequently alluded to the theory in their professional journals and conferences. They were pleased by and took pride in the idea that "sign or gesture language is of great antiquity," that "many philologists think that it was the original language of mankind," and that sign language might have been, "in the designs of Providence, the necessary forerunner of speech."10
As evangelical Protestants, manualists interpreted the theory in terms of biblical history. According to their creationist understanding, humanity had come into the world in essentially its present form. They disagreed on finer points—the precise nature of the first humans, for example. Some held to the literal story in Genesis and argued that God had created Adam and Eve with a complete language ready for use; others sought to adapt the biblical account to recent intellectual trends and treated it more loosely, suggesting that God had originally given humans the capacity for language and had left them to develop that capacity themselves over time. Of those who believed that language developed over time, many argued that some form of gesture or sign language must have been used before spoken language.11 But even though humans were thought to have perhaps developed in some ways since the Creation, such as in language, it was widely held that humans had remained the same morally and intellectually—or had actually degenerated.12 So the idea that sign language preceded speech would not imply inferiority within the framework of their Protestant beliefs. Indeed, it was a mark of honor.
Oralist educators of the late nineteenth century, however, would show an even greater interest in the idea, and give a very different interpretation to its significance. To the manualist generation, "original language" meant "closer to the Creation." It would hold quite different connotations for post-Darwin oralists, for whom it meant, instead, closer to the apes. Humanity had risen rather than fallen, according to the theory of evolution, and was the end product of history rather than its beginning. In an evolutionary age, language was no longer an attribute inherent in the human soul, one of an indivisible cluster of abilities that included reason, imagination, and the conscience, conferred by God at the Creation. It was, instead, a distinct ability achieved through a process of evolution from animal ancestors. Sign language came to be seen as a language low in the scale of evolutionary progress, preceding in history even the most "savage" of spoken languages and supposedly forming a link between the animal and the human. The "creature from which man developed in one direction, and the apes in another" probably used rudimentary forms of both gesture and speech, as one writer in Science speculated. While in humans the "gesture-language was developed at first," speech later supplanted it. On the other hand, "in the apes the gesture-language alone was developed."13
Linguists of the late nineteenth century commonly applied to language theory what has been called "linguistic Darwinism": inferior languages died out, they argued, and were replaced by superior languages in the "struggle for existence."14 Gestural communication seemed to have been an early loser. The American philologist William Dwight Whitney, for example, believed that human communication once consisted of "an inferior system of…tone, gesture, and grimace"; it was through the "process of natural selection and survival of the fittest that the voice has gained the upper hand."15
The languages of early humans could not be directly studied, of course; no fossils are left recording speech, gesture, or expressions of the face. Anthropologists, however, began in the latter decades of the nineteenth century to see the so-called "savage races" as examples of earlier stages of evolution. Assuming a model of linear evolutionary progress, they depicted them—Africans, American Indians, Australian aborigines, and others—as "living fossils" left behind by the more rapidly progressing cultures.16 This provided an ostensible means to study "early" human cultures and languages.
The eminent British anthropologist Edward B. Tylor, for example, noted in his Researches into the Early History of Mankind that "savage and half-civilized races accompany their talk with expressive pantomime much more than nations of higher culture," indicating to him that "in the early stages of the development of language…gesture had an importance as an element of expression, which in conditions of highly-organized language it has lost." While Tylor took a great interest in gestural language, was apparently familiar with British Sign Language, and had friends who were deaf, he held to the prevailing evolutionary assumption that sign language was a primitive and therefore inferior form of communication.17
Garrick Mallery, a retired Army colonel who studied American Indian cultures for the Bureau of Ethnology in the Smithsonian Institution, was probably the foremost expert in the nation on Indian sign languages, and his articles and lectures were sometimes reprinted in the American Annals of the Deaf. Along with other anthropologists, he believed that while early humans had probably not used gestures to the complete exclusion of speech, it was likely that "oral speech remained rudimentary long after gesture had become an art." While Mallery associated sign language use with a lower stage of evolution, he nevertheless had a genuine fascination and respect for sign languages. He defended aboriginal users of sign language against charges that they employed gestures only because their spoken languages were deficient. The common traveler's story, that some aboriginal spoken languages were not sufficient by themselves to permit conversations after dark, was not true, he insisted. He argued that the use of sign language was largely a function of the number of disparate languages spoken within a region—"as the number of dialects in any district decreases so will the gestures"—since, he believed, the primary use of sign language was intertribal communication. Still, Mallery viewed the transition to speech as a clear indication of human progress. For example, the invention of writing influenced people to "talk as they write," he believed, and therefore to gesture less. He speculated that gesture signs were most common among people who hunted—"the main occupation of all savages"—because of the need for stealth and were then used in other contexts simply by force of habit. It was undeniable to Mallery that the use of gestures existed in "inverse proportion to the general culture." He concluded that the "most notable criterion" for distinguishing between "civilized" and "savage" peoples was to be found in the "copiousness and precision of oral language, and in the unequal survival of the communication by gesture signs which, it is believed, once universally prevailed."18
Mallery did not believe, however, that sign languages were inherently inferior or primitive—indeed, he argued that they could potentially express any idea that spoken languages could. Nearly one hundred years before modern linguists rediscovered sign languages and began to take them seriously as authentic languages, Mallery spoke confidently of "conclusive proof that signs constitute a real language." His argument, rather, was that sign languages were historically inferior—that is, they were relatively undeveloped because less used in recent times than spoken languages.19
This distinction between inherent and historical inferiority, however, was not often observed by popular writers or the critics of sign language in deaf education. For most it was simply the inferior language of inferior peoples. The language used by deaf people became increasingly linked in the public mind with the languages of "savages." References, such as Edward Tylor's, to "the gesture-signs of savages and deaf-mutes" became commonplace in both popular and scholarly publications.20 Darwin himself wrote of gestures as a form of communication "used by the deaf and dumb and by savages."21 After noting that sign languages were "universally prevalent in the savage stages of social evolution," Mallery suggested that it was likely that "troglodyte" humans communicated "precisely as Indians or deaf-mutes" do today.22 A contributor to Science commented that sign languages were used by "the less cultured tribes, while the spoken language is seen in its highest phase among the more civilized," and then added that sign language was also used "in the training of the deaf and dumb." He concluded that "the gesture language is a rudimentary one, which is now on the decline."23 A reporter for the New York Evening Post, in an article on the prolific gestures of Italian immigrants, noted that "philosophers have argued that because among most savages the language of gesture is extensive," the use of gesticulation with or in lieu of speech is a "sign of feeble intellectual power, and that civilization must needs leave it behind." He pointed out that deaf people as well as American Indians also used gestures to communicate.24
One might expect the literature of deaf education to deal in more concrete terms with issues related to the actual lives of deaf people. But here too the association of sign language with peoples considered inferior colored all discussion, with oralist teachers fretting that sign language was "characteristic of tribes low in the scale of development." Gardiner G. Hubbard, president of the Clarke Institution for Deaf-Mutes, one of the first oral schools, complained that the sign language of deaf people "resembles the languages of the North American Indian and the Hottentot of South Africa." J. D. Kirkhuff of the Pennsylvania Institution asserted that as "man emerged from savagery he discarded gestures for the expression of his ideas"—it followed that deaf people ought to discard them as well and fell upon teachers to "emancipate the deaf from their dependence upon gesture language." A leading oralist in England, Susanna E. Hull, wrote in the American Annals of the Deaf that since spoken language was the "crown of history," to use sign language with deaf children was to "push them back in the world's history to the infancy of our race." Since it was the language of "American Indians and other savage tribes," she asked, "shall sons and daughters of this nineteenth century be content with this?"25
The theory that speech supplanted sign language in an evolutionary competition was so common that the oralist Emma Garrett could make an elliptical reference to it as early as 1883 and assume her readers would understand the allusion: "If speech is better for hearing people than barbaric signs," she wrote, "it is better for the deaf; being the `fittest, it has survived.'"26
Manualists had been well aware, of course, that American Indians used sign language. In fact, delegations of Indians were occasional visitors to schools for the deaf, where they conversed with deaf students and teachers in pantomimic signs. On one such occasion, in 1873 at the Pennsylvania Institution, "it was remarked," as Mallery explained it, "that the signs of the deaf-mutes were much more readily understood by the Indians than were theirs by the deaf-mutes, and that the latter greatly excelled in pantomimic effect." Mallery thought this was not surprising "when it is considered that what is to the Indian a mere adjunct…is to the deaf-mute the natural mode of utterance."27
But while manualists often compared the sign language of deaf people to that of American Indians, in the same paragraph they were apt to compare it to the high art of pantomime cultivated by the ancient Romans or to note the syntactical features it shared with ancient Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or Chinese (see chapter 4).28 None of these comparisons were thought to demean sign language. Rather, they were merely evidence that gestural communication was an ability "which nature furnishes to man wherever he is found, whether barbarous or civilized."29
If sign language appeared to have been used more in the past than in the present, this did not imply inferiority to them in the same way it would for the oralist generation. When the manualists thought of progress, it was social progress, an accumulation of knowledge, of accomplishment, not an improvement in the actual physical and intellectual capacities of human beings. As Harvey Peet affirmed for his colleagues in 1855, "we find in our philosophy no reason to reject the Scriptural doctrine, that the first man was the type of the highest perfection, mental and physical, of his descendants. Races of men sometimes improve, but, in other circumstances, they as notoriously degenerate. It is at least full as philosophical to suppose the inferior races of men to have been degenerate descendants from the superior races, as to suppose the converse."30
One theory of history for their generation was that civilizations rose and fell rather than climbed continuously; languages and peoples did not ascend ever higher over the course of history but rather had "their birth, growth, and culmination, like the language of the Hebrews for instance, or the splendid tongues of Greece and Rome."31 Languages could not perpetually progress, for the "tendency of every language is toward change, decay, and ultimate extinction as a living organism." The examples of Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin were evidence that all languages changed over time and finally "passed into that doom of death and silence which awaits alike the speaker and the speech."32 Languages changed, but they could as well decline as improve; there was no reason to assume that present languages were better than past ones.
Americans who came of age in the late nineteenth century looked to a different past than this. Because sign language was supposed to have been superseded long ago by speech, it was to their way of thinking necessarily inferior. As such, it deserved extinction. An oralist in 1897, pointing out that manualists had often commented upon the similarities between the sign languages of American Indians and deaf people, suggested that he would not "question the truth of this observation, nor deny that it is worth noting." He would attribute to the observation, however, a very different significance than had his predecessors. While "savage races have a code of signs by which they can communicate with each other," he wrote, surely "we have reached a stage in the world's history when we can lay aside the tools of savagery." Because of "progress in enlightenment," schools were "fortunately able now to give our deaf children a better means of communication with men than that employed by the American Indian or the African savage." And just as sign language had been supplanted by speech in the advance of civilization, so too was the use of sign language in deaf education—"like all the ideas of a cruder and less advanced age"—being rendered unnecessary by progress.33
If oralists associated sign language with Africans, what did they do when they encountered African-American deaf students? Information specifically on the education of black deaf children is difficult to come by; the subject was rarely raised at conferences or addressed in school reports and educational literature. At least in the south, however, where schools for the deaf, like schools for the hearing, were typically segregated, oral education was clearly not extended to blacks on the same basis as whites.
At the 1882 convention of American Instructors of the Deaf, for example, after the superintendent of the North Carolina Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind had given a report on the new oral program established in his school, he was asked, "has any experiment been made in the institution to teach colored children?" The superintendent answered that "in a separate building, one mile from the main institution, there are thirty colored children…with a separate teacher in charge. No instruction has been given in articulation, and none will be given at present."34