William Stokoe – American Sign Language scholar

William Stokoe (pronounced Stowkee) is the man most responsible for ASL being recognised as an official language rather than just a mimed vocabulary. Surprisingly, he wasn’t deaf or a signer. He was an English teacher who had gone to Gallaudet college (the world’s only Deaf University) in 1955 to teach Chaucer to deaf students.

He was considered a true eccentric for coming to work on a motorbike and practicing his bagpipes on campus where no one could hear him. His hair was often worn in a bowl haircut which is why his eventual name sign was a hand on the head with fingers extended to the fringe.

At the time, the attitude to Sign was so bad that the local deaf kindergarten had a wooden fence so the children wouldn’t see the nearby students signing to each other.

Much later, in 1968, Stokoe would appoint a deaf graduate student with two deaf children to teach prep English classes. She sent her children to the kindergarten. Stokoe recalled that:

She turned the place around. The hearing mothers saw how Judy’s children not only responded to her instructions but could communicate with each other and with the deaf people going along the corridors. The other mothers would ask, “What’s going on here? These kids are oceans ahead of ours.” Theirs, of course, we’re receiving auditory training- noises in their earphones, pictures, attempts to teach them reading and speech, making sounds, holding their fingers on the teacher’s throat. And to give the teachers credit, they listened…That nursery school began using sign language practically overnight.”

He started attending a class to learn signs but realized he wasn’t being taught Sign but fingerspelling and Signed English. This is slower than Sign or Speech because you have to sign every word in the exact order as spoken English. It doesn’t take advantage of Sign’s visual grammar.

Stokoe said:

“I realized immediately that the deaf students on campus were not using signs the same way that we were…we were to avoid the language the students used. Some years later, I observed Miss Benson giving a class in communication to health workers, nurses and social workers…She was teaching them facial expression. She told them to use pantomime or whatever they needed to communicate. It was just the opposite, really, of what she taught us to do in classes.”

Stokoe was impressed with the versatility of Sign, observing a student who didn’t understand the word ‘backlog’ until he realised that it was ‘have behind’ in Sign.

Unfortunately, the irony was that the man who would codify ASL wasn’t a very good signer. While Stokoe managed to learn hundreds of signs, he was a very slow, clunky signer.

Stokoe was surprised and delighted that his students were better at pronouncing Middle English than his hearing students:

“That seemed a little surprising at first since they couldn’t hear, but when you stop to think about it, it’s quite logical. They never did assume that what they were looking at could be read off the page like the language they spoke. They realized from long experience that when they saw something on the page they had to learn the code for turning those letter sequences into sound.”

By 1956, Stokoe was convinced that:

“I just knew that when these deaf people were together and communicating with each other, what they were communicating with was a language, not somebody else’s language; since it wasn’t English, it must have been their own language. There was nothing “broken” or “inadequate” about it; they got on splendidly with it.”

One teacher complained that her students hardly ever answered her signed questions first time around. Stokoe pointed out that in ASL, if you drop your hands at the end of a sentence, that means it’s a declaration. To ask a question, you have to keep your hands up at neck level at the end of the question (the teacher had been tracing a question mark).

In 1960 he published Sign Language Structure, then in 1965, he (with his deaf colleagues Dorothy Casterline + Carl Croneberg) published A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles. He created a table of 55 symbols so that ASL would have its own alphabet and explained how it worked in the introduction:

“Readers who know the American sign language best will find this dictionary strange at first because the language has never before been written. It is written here and can be written because of what we know of its structure… The three aspects of a sign are (1) the place where it is made [tabula/tab], (2) the distinctive configuration of the hand or hands making it [designator/dez] and (3) the action of the hand or hands [signation/sig]. These three terms, tab, dez and sig, are used throughout the dictionary.”

There were 12 symbols for location, 19 for handshapes and 24 for motions.

Stokoe realised these were the visual equivalent of phonemes, the units of speech in spoken languages.

Instead of arranging the signs by topic, they were ordered according to their parts.

In 1972 he founded the journal Sign Language Studies.

While some people refused to accept Sign as a language, others had glorified ASL as a potential universal language whereas in fact there are multiple sign languages just as there are multiple spoken languages. Stokoe explained that there were three types of signs. First were those that were pure mimicry e.g. “chicken” which are usually understood worldwide. Then there were visual metaphors only understandable in certain cultures e.g. the sign for “sugar” would be easily understood by someone who had worked in a sugar mill and had to rub sugar off their cheeks. Finally, there are purely abstract signs with no obvious visual clues.

Stokoe was disappointed at the reaction to Sign Language Structure: “With the exception of one or two colleagues, the entire Gallaudet faculty rudely attacked me, linguistics and the study of signing as a language.”

Surprisingly, most deaf people in that era didn’t think Sign could be analysed linguistically. The deaf playwright Gil Eastman said:

“My colleagues and I laughed at Dr Stokoe and his crazy project. It was impossible to analyze our sign language.”

Stokoe kept his good humour even when he was being denounced by deaf staff at a meeting. His friend George Detmold (Gallaudet’s Dean of instruction, who had got Stokoe his position) recalled that:

“The deaf faculty were furious with him. He was a hearing person, a newcomer- how did he dare to publish anything about the deaf! It was absolutely ridiculous to analyze sign language; everyone knew that it could never be analyzed! Underneath all the imprecations you could detect a proprietary feeling among the deaf people that their most treasured and closely guarded secret was being brought out into the public view… The hearing people generally didn’t understand what the fuss was all about.”

Stokoe calmly sat through the meeting, his main reaction was his delight at recognising the sign for ‘not yet’. He kept his position.

His dictionary was largely ignored at first. 5,000 were printed initially but they were left in a storeroom near a leaking swimming pool so many of them were ruined.

In 1977, Gallaudet’s administrators decided that all interpretation would be in ‘Sim Com’, simultaneously talking and signing. This was despite the fact that it had been shown to be inferior to separately talking and signing. Stokoe protested but in his words it was like “Butting my head against a soft belly.” He delivered a lecture in Newcastle about the disadvantages of using Sim Com.

In 1984, Gallaudet college suddenly decided to shut down Stokoe’s 13-year-old Linguistics Research Laboratory, firing all the employees. Stokoe was devastated.

In 1988, he backed I. King Jordan to become Gallaudet’s first Deaf President after a five day strike. www.britishdeafnews.co.uk/gallaudet-university-deaf-president-now

The next year he participated in The Deaf Way, a festival of signed art. In 1990, Gallaudet tried to make amends by awarding him an honorary doctorate.

Writer, actor and interpreter Lou Fant (who had deaf parents) believed Stokoe had paved the way for  the Gallaudet strike:

“Bill made the first crack in the dam that eventually erupted into the flood that we call deaf empowerment. Without a legitimately recognized language, there is no culture; without a culture, there is no self identity; without self identity, you just go on trying to be what others demand you be. Without the concept of deaf culture, and the identity that goes with it, there would have been no Deaf President Now.”

William Stokoe died on April 4, 2000. The year before, his 80th birthday was celebrated at the Gallaudet conference. The conference gave him a simple message:

“Thank you, Bill, for all you did for the deaf community, for the community of scholars, and for Gallaudet University.”