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The Word

Village sign languages, vanishing fast

Researchers discover the unusual cultures that brought deaf and hearing together

Long before the summer people descended, Martha’s Vineyard was an isolated settlement of fishing and whaling villages—so isolated, in fact, that it was said that more islanders had sailed to China than to Boston. Several old Vineyard families arrived together on the same ship from the English county of Kent, settled in the same villages, and married among themselves down through the generations. And it was a gene mutation high up in this family tree that ended up giving Martha’s Vineyard a curious distinction: It had one of the highest concentrations of deaf residents in the United States.

The island deaf lived an unusually assimilated life. Deafness was so common, particularly in the towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury, that it ceased to be regarded as a disability. “Oh, those people weren’t handicapped,” an elderly resident told the anthropologist Nora Groce in the 1970s. “They were just deaf.” Hearing children picked up sign language from relatives and neighbors and spoke it throughout their lives, to their deaf friends and to each other. It was used between fishermen from boat to shore and churchgoers from pew to pew. And the sign language they used was unique to the island.

Among anthropologists, the Martha’s Vineyard deaf community—which thrived for roughly 250 years, from the beginning of the 18th century to the middle of the 20th—has long been legendary. But in recent years, academics have begun to find more communities like it throughout the world. In this newly defined group of village, or rural, sign languages, they are discovering linguistic features and cultural adaptations that have never been documented before.

But as the modern world erodes the boundaries that sheltered these small communities, the languages are rapidly fading away. The 2013 edition of Ethnologue, a catalog of the world’s living languages, counts 136 living sign languages; linguists estimate that once the survey is complete, the number will climb to around 400. More than any other sign-linguistic group, the village sign languages are at risk of extinction.


Last year, the first collection of studies of village sign languages was published: “Sign Languages in Village Communities,” edited by the linguists Ulrike Zeshan and Connie de Vos. It documents examples in India, Israel, Jamaica, Turkey, Thailand, Bali, and five other places. Rather than literal islands, like Martha’s Vineyard, most are cultural islands, like Alipur, a small Shia Muslim village in an otherwise Hindu region of southern India.


Among the unusual cultural features that the contributors identify, in addition to a remarkable tolerance of deafness, is a local brand of Hinduism in a Balinese village that includes a deaf god. As for unusual linguistic features, in Kata Kolok, a village sign language of Bali, signers use the space all around their body for signing: They extend their arms, bend over, and act out movements. The sign languages of Chican (Mexico), Mardin (Turkey), and Alipur use sophisticated numerical systems, expressing numbers in multiples of 20 and 50, or through subtraction (18 = 20 - 2).

Since the 19th century, a major threat to village sign-language communities has been segregated deaf education, which removes children to nearby cities and teaches them the national sign language. In Alipur, the old generation now complains of the local children using “strange Bangalore signs,” not to mention cellphones and Facebook. In Martha’s Vineyard, the shift began in 1817, when the American Asylum for Deaf-mutes (later the American School for the Deaf) opened in Hartford. At schools like these, many teenagers meet their spouses, who may be deaf, but likely not from hereditary causes. This spells an end to self-perpetuating deaf communities.

Of course, it’s hard to wholeheartedly mourn the thought of more people being able to hear. But when local languages are lost, vital aspects of local knowledge and identity die with them. “These communities will lose part of their unique identity and cultural heritage if these sign languages die out without even being properly documented,” says Zeshan, who directs an international
research institute in sign linguistics and deaf studies at the University of Central Lancashire, in the United Kingdom. “And all of us will lose some valuable lessons in how fluid definitions of ‘disability’ can be.”


As deaf populations in these villages diminish, some people recognize in retrospect how special their societies have been. In a recent issue of the journal Sustainability, the anthropologist Annelies Kusters tells the story of a chieftain in the Ghanaian village of Adamorobe who in 1975 made a law forbidding deaf villagers to marry each other, in an effort to reduce the size of the deaf community. The result of the law, which has continued to be enforced over the ensuing 40 years, was to stigmatize deaf villagers and threaten the social balance.

For all that the rest of the world stands to learn from these sign languages, they are most important to the villagers themselves. To ensure that academics can enter these insular places with the least possible disruption, Zeshan collaborates with deaf researchers from the local countries. Their goal is to help people make informed choices about the future of their languages, before, like the one on Martha’s Vineyard, they disappear.

Joshua J. Friedman, a former editor at the Atlantic and Boston Review, is a writer in New York City. He can be reached at joshuajfriedman.com.