The Shared Sign Language of Martha's Vineyard

By the early 18th century, it was not uncommon for people in Martha's Vineyard to be deaf from birth. This had a profound effect on the culture of Martha's Vineyard - and one that went on to influence Deaf culture in the United States as a whole.

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Gracious thanks to listener Allie for emailing us this transcript, which she made for use in her classroom. We have replaced our recording script with her transcript below.

X: Welcome to Stuff You Missed In History Class from

T: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Tracy V. Wilson.

H: And I'm Holly Frey.

T: This podcast is a listener request. It's actually, one we've gotten a few times before. But recently we got an email that was so compelling that I basically stopped what I was doing and put it at the top of the list (after checking with you, Holly, to make sure you were not doing the exact same thing).

H: (Laughs) My reaction in my head was actually um 'Ooh! That's a really cool topic! Tracy would love to do that one'.

T: Aww!

H: 'Cause I knew it was right in your wheelhouse.

T: Well and when I said I literally stopped what I was doing, I think I was looking at my email waiting in line to get to security at the airport and on the other side of security I was texting you about it. That's (laughs) I did not text you about it while literally going through the scanner. That would be a little much. So, we're gonna read that email at the end. Martha's Vineyard is an island off the coast of Massachusetts. So, if you imagine the coast of Massachusetts is a big pointy fish hook - with that fishhook being Cape Cod - Martha's Vineyard is south of the very base of the hook, where it broadens out into the mainland. A town called Chilmark was founded in Martha's Vineyard in 1640, and by the early 18th century, an increasing number of children were being born there without the ability to hear, and the neighbouring town of West Tisbury showed a similar pattern as well.

Over those centuries, much of the western part of Martha's Vineyard became home to a population in which far more people were deaf from birth than in the North American population as a whole, and this had a profound effect on the culture of Martha's Vineyard - and one that went on to influence Deaf culture in the United States later on - which is what we are going to be talking about today!

H: Prior to the arrival of colonists from Europe, Martha's Vineyard was home to the Wampanoag Tribe, which refers to the island as Noepe. After the colonists' arrival, the tribe's population dropped dramatically in the wake of introduced diseases and being forced to move into progressively smaller parts of their former territory. Both the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, Aquinnah are federally recognized today, and the latter is headquartered in Aquinnah, on the tip of the island just to the west of Chilmark.

T: Before anyone writes in, I have heard humans pronounce these as womp-a-no-ag (/?w??mp?no?æ?/) and ah-kee-na (/??ki:n?/). However, the far more common pronunciation that I found, including people that I checked with directly were Womp-a-nog (/?w??mp?n???/) and A-quin-na (/??kw?n?/). So, Martha's Vineyard was home to a Native American population once Chilmark was founded, although estimates really vary dramatically in terms of exactly how many were living on the island at the time - anywhere from hundreds to three thousand. However, in terms of Europeans and other European settlements, the western end of Martha's Vineyard was really quite remote. It was basically a fishing village without its own port, and the roads between it and other European settlements on the island were just not good. People stayed where they were for generations, and they generally married other members of the community, not outsiders and not Native Americans from the neighbouring town of Aquinnah.

H: Jonathan Lambert is often credited as being the first person with inherited deafness in Martha's Vineyard. Jonathan was the son of Joshua Lambert and Abigail Linnell, who had moved to the island in 1694. Jonathan was one of nine children, and he had one other Deaf sibling. Judge Samuel Sewell of Boston visited the island in 1714 and described Jonathan in his diary - this is the first written reference to a deaf person on Martha's Vineyard.

T: Because he was the first deaf person in the written record on Martha's Vineyard, a lot of sources describe Jonathan Lambert as being the source of this congenital deafness - but that's not the case. In later generations, all of Martha's Vineyard's Deaf community could trace their ancestry back to people who settled on the island between 1642 and 1710, after which point immigration of Europeans from the mainland virtually stopped. But, they couldn't necessarily trace their ancestry to Jonathan Lambert or his parents. In reality, three different families, all of whom had originated from the Weald in Kent, had settled in Scituate, Massachusetts, which is a coastal town 32 miles (which is 51 kilometres) south of Boston. Theirdescendants had then settled later on in Martha's Vineyard, often by way of other towns they stopped in first.

H: Since members of three different families who all carried this same gene were all living together on this relatively isolated location, after the early 1700s, the population of people who were born deaf continued to grow. Roughly equal numbers of boys and girls were born unable to hear, but without any other traits that might be considered disabling or pathological in nature. Often, deaf children, including multiple siblings in the same family, were born to hearing parents who had a deaf family member further back in the family tree. Sometimes, it would skip multiple generations - as many as six.

T: Today, we understand this as how recessive genes work - but to people who were living at the time, it seemed simultaneously inherited and random. It was obviously a family connection, but people couldn't really tell who or when someone would be born who couldn't hear. Some people thought this was because the mother had been frightened during her pregnancy. Alexander Graham Bell visited the island in the 1880s to try to figure out whether deafness was genetic, and by then the ratio of Deaf to hearing persons on Martha's Vineyard was much higher than in the rest of the United States, except perhaps in institutions that that had been specifically for deaf people.

H: As a side note - Alexander Graham Bell's involvement with deaf people and deaf education is really controversial today, because he was one of the biggest proponents of the oralist method - that is, teaching deaf people to speak and read lips rather than to sign. However, that's not the focus of the podcast today, so we're not going into that into detail. We just wanted to note it.

T: Yeah, it seemed like it would raise more questions that we answered if we didn't say anything about it at all. In terms of numbers of Deaf people on Martha's Vineyard, the estimates are all over the place - anywhere from one deaf person for every 155 hearing people, to one in 25 in 1854. According to an 1895 article in the Boston Sunday Herald, in some neighborhoods it was as high as 1 in 4. Nationally, the United States population averaged one deaf person for every 3,000-5,000 hearing people - estimates on that vary, also.

H: Although Alexander Graham Bell wasn't able to figure out why deaf people were being born on Martha's Vineyard - and today we understand that there are lots of different things that can cause a person to be deaf - his records still do exist today.

T: Something that doesn't, though, is the sign language that was actually being used on Martha's Vineyard, and we'll talk about it after a brief break for a word from a sponsor.


T: As we talked about before the break, from the 17th to the 19th century, European communities on Martha's Vineyard were geographically very isolated. People tended to marry and have children with other members of that same community. It had a large population of people who were deaf from birth, and that population existed and even grew over many generations.

H: That meant that Martha's Vineyard was primed to develop what's known as a shared sign language - a sign language that is used by both its hearing and Deaf members of its community, regardless of whether hearing members have close relationships with anyone who is deaf. Essentially, any time a community is geographically isolated, has a large population of people who cannot hear, and continues to exhibit those first two traits across multiple generations, it's likely to develop its own common sign language that everyone learns.

T: This has happened in communities all over the world, so while we're talking specifically about Martha's Vineyard today, this was not unique to Martha's Vineyard at all. Some other examples are Amami Oshima Island in Japan, Bengkala in Bali, Adamorobe in Ghana, Ban Khor in Thailand, and Providence Island off the coast of Colombia. Some of these places are islands, which makes it make sense that some of there were isolated. Some of them were just particularly remote.

H: Most of the documentation of what Martha's Vineyard was like comes from Nora Ellen Groce's book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language, which combines research in genetics, legal documents, primary source records, and lots of oral history. The oral histories were conducted in the 1980s and are the biggest source of information about what life was like on Martha's Vineyard when everyone knew this shared sign language. This history only goes back to about 1830 - so there's a period between the late 1600s and 1830 where we don't really know for sure how many people knew sign language, or how people in Martha's Vineyard's Deaf community lived or were treated.

T: Yeah, we have a lot of genealogy documentation from that point and records that still exist in terms of wills and legal documents and stuff like that, but the oral history doesn't stretch back farther than about 1830 because at that point the human memory is just too far removed from the person who is being interviewed. So, by the 19th century, the entire hearing community 'up-Island', or in the western part of the island that includes Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury, everyone was bilingual in both English in Martha's Vineyard Sign Language. The exception was Aquinnah, which was populated by Native Americans, who really didn't have a lot of ongoing contact with the other towns. (Exactly how far down-Island knowledge of sign language stretched, and by how many people, and for how long, is a little bit of a mystery.)

T: Everyone learned sign language as children. Deaf children who were born to hearing families with no other Deaf members were still exposed to lots of sign language through daily routine. Both Deaf and hearing parents also taught their children to sign. This seems to be the way the entire community became fluent, rather than through formal instruction in a classroom.

H: All communication between Deaf and hearing people also seems to have happened through sign language. People who were interviewed for Groce's book didn't remember any Deaf members of the community reading lips or learning to speak orally. And, there's no evidence that Martha's Vineyard's Deaf community spoke by writing notes for hearing people to read. However, in the 19th century, both Deaf and hearing children did learn to read and write - it's not clear how much of the community as a whole, Deaf or hearing, was literate before that point.

H: At town meetings, any time a hearing person was speaking, a hearing person interpreted, and because the whole hearing community was fluent, there was not one specific interpreter. At church, Deaf people were allowed to stand at the front of the church so everyone could see their prayers and confessions. The sermons were usually interpreted by family members and friends who could sign and sat with their Deaf loved ones, rather than having one interpreter for the whole congregation.

T: There are also oral history testimonies of hearing people using sign language as well, when there were no Deaf people were present. Sometimes it was because the person they were communicating with was too far away to be heard. Sometimes, it was because the place where they were was too loud. And sometimes it was just because they were so accustomed to signing in their daily lives.

H: The language itself may have been influenced by a local sign language used in the Weald in Kent, where so many of the carriers of this recessive gene originally came from. There's some speculation that it also draws from signs used by the Wampanoag, but that seems less likely given that there was not as much interaction between Martha's Vineyard's white community and their Wampanoag community when the language was developing.

T: We also don't have a lot of documentation of the language's vocabulary or structure. The last known person to have inherited this inherited deafness was Katie West, who died in 1952. By this point, Chilmark and West Tisbury had become far less isolated - the roads were a lot better. Tourism was becoming a bigger industry in Martha's Vineyard. And more and more people were going away to school and then meeting people and marrying them later on.

H: When all of those changes had started happening around the turn of the 20th century, an influx of outsiders to Martha's Vineyard brought with them the prejudicial attitudes toward Deafness and disability that were pervasive elsewhere - basically, that Deafness carried a stigma, and that Deaf people were inferior to hearing people. This whole concept seems to have been completely foreign to Martha's Vineyard. It's unlikely that these attitudes changed the perspectives of locals - but they did come to the island along with the newcomers.

T: All of this means that by the time researchers started trying to document the language in the 1970s and 1980s, they were talking to hearing people who hadn't used the language regularly in decades - the last members of Martha's Vineyard's Deaf community had long since died, and the perception that being Deaf was just a facet of the human experience had faded a bit. Most people interviewed remembered only a few signs. We do know that some of those signs are similar to those used in American Sign Language, which you'll also see referred to as ASL. One possible reason is that when the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, which was the first school for the deaf in the United States, opened in Hartford in 1817, its largest single source of students was Martha's Vineyard. After that year, all but one Deaf child in Martha's Vineyard went to the school for at least some period of time. Many other students were from towns in Maine who were related to the ones from Martha's Vineyard, and all these students brought Martha's Vineyard Sign Language with them to the school.

T: The Asylum was also where the United States started to develop its own standardized sign language, as we said earlier ASL. The school's founder, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet had met Laurent Clerc in France, and had brought him to the United States to help teach Deaf students. Most likely, ASL draws from French Sign Language, Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, and other signs and sign languages that were already known by students in the early 1800s when they all came together to start learning at this school.

H: Martha's Vineyard Sign Language is definitely not the same as ASL, though - the people interviewed for Groce's book said they couldn't understand ASL when they saw it.

T: After another brief sponsor break, we're going to talk about how people look back on Martha's Vineyard and its sign language today.


T: A lot of writing about Chilmark today, and really Martha's Vineyard as a whole, makes it sound as though this was some sort of idyllic, all-accepting community of love and support. And while it does seem definitely to be true that virtually everyone in Chilmark and other parts of Martha's Vineyard did know and used sign language all the time, writing from outside of the community makes it VERY CLEARthat commonly held attitudes about disability in the rest of the nation were applied to Martha's Vineyard, Chilmark and West Tisbury as well.

H: For example, in 1895, S. Millington Miller, M.D., wrote an article called 'The Ascent of Man', published in the magazine The Arena, edited by B.O. Flower. This was a magazine that for much of its history focused on social reform - its writers were the sorts of journalists who were referred to during the progressive era as 'muckrakers', and the magazine published articles about things like labour rights, the need to end capital punishment, the need for kindergarten, and women's suffrage. And also, in the case of Chilmark, eugenics.

T: Ah, what we're about to read is awful. In Miller's words: 'This community, isolated from the outside world, has not only retained its primitive customs and manners, but the physical taint in the original stock has also produced a plenteous harvest of affliction'.

H: He goes on to write, quote, 'Chilmarth', (That's his misspelling) 'with its quaintly tainted stock, kept isolate from the infusion of new blood by preference and by environment, is a sort of garden of affliction. Into its loamy soil the seed of the noxious weed of disease was originally dropped by accident, and not only grows unmolested by the garden, Time, among the flowers of health, but year by year strangles and presses them out, their place being taken by increasing crops of its own deadly species'.

T: So, just to be clear, that was a doctor in a progressive magazine describing deafness (and also blindness, which wasn't actually reported as being prevalent in Martha's Vineyard in any of the research I did for this episode) as a deadly species of plant crowding out the nice healthy ones. He goes on to write about deafness, blindness, and developmental disabilities in terms that are just gross and horrifying by today's standards, and also using a bunch of flower and plant metaphors to advocate eugenics.

H: But when we look at the history from the residents of Martha's Vineyard, it's a much more positive story. We have lots of oral history from those residents who remember the Deaf community as being fully integrated with the hearing community, with no discrimination and no barriers. Deaf and hearing children had equal access to education - and in some cases, Deaf children actually had better access to education because the state would pay for up to 10 years of schooling at the school for the Deaf.

T: Deaf and hearing adults had equal access to things like jobs and housing. There weren't specific jobs that were thought of as the only ones acceptable for deaf people. Deaf adults had the same rights as hearing adults in terms of things like voting and community involvement. Social events were open to everyone. And, the fact that Deaf and hearing people tended to intermarry a lot more frequently than they did in the United States at large suggests that Deaf and hearing people on Martha's Vineyard didn't view one another as different.

H: Hearing members of the community basically described the Deaf community as not disabled at all - being Deaf was no different from having a different eye color, and some even went so far as to say things like, quote, 'Oh, they weren't handicapped, they were just deaf'. Having a Deaf child also wasn't viewed as a problem or a tragedy - just something that happened and this is, in some ways, similar to Deaf culture today, which does not view being Deaf as a disability at all.

T: And, many of Martha's Vineyard's hearing residents who were interviewed later in their lives talked about believing that it was that way everywhere. It was only after hearing people went away to school that they realized there was anything was different about where they had grown up.

H: All of this played out at a time when Deaf people elsewhere in the U.S. were often, at best, segregated from the rest of the community and, at worst, institutionalized in facilities that were rife with neglect and mistreatment and offered no opportunities for education. So it does make it seem like Martha's Vineyard was far more accepting and egalitarian, at least in terms of its Deaf community.

T: What we don'thave, though, is any member of Martha's Vineyard's Deaf community actually communicating for themselves. All of the oral history that we have is from people who can hear, and it was recorded much later. The hearing community does seem to have genuinely believed that the Deaf community were treated in all ways as equals - but we can't really say for sure whether a Deaf person would agree with that assessment. It definitely would not be the first time in history that a majority population earnestly and genuinely thought everything was fine, but a minority population didn't.

H: Today, Martha's Vineyard Sign Language is extinct. There are efforts underway to preserve shared sign languages from other locations around the world before they die out as well, as well as a tradition of preserving ASL through video.

T: There are archives and a lot of historical writings on this at the Chilmark Free Public Library's website but to be very clear, a lot of it was written more than 100 years ago. Some of it is extremely hurtful, and ah basically disgusting, in how it describes deafness and disability. What we read today from that eugenics article was really the tip of the iceberg in that regard. And even the oral histories in Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language, a lot of them use language that was acceptable in the 1980s but is not today. So, if you're getting ready to sit down and talk about all those things with your kids, perhaps, ah that is a thing to keep in mind, that there are things in there that are genuinely hurtful.

H: And now Tracy, will you read us the email that inspired this episode?

T: I will! The Listener Mail is from Kate. Kate says: Hi, Tracy and Holly! I wanted to email the two of you with an episode suggestion and let you know that I think the two of you are doing an amazing job. I started listening to the show after I graduated college with my History degree a few years ago, and chose to stay at home with my infant twins. I am a pretty extroverted person, so listening to your show has done a lot to keep me from feeling isolated. I was feeling pretty overwhelmed learning what it was to be a parent, with preemie twins, and taking "me time" to listen to your show helped me to stay centered. Thank you for that. I know a lot of people listen to y'all's show just waiting to swoop in to correct you or "tell you how to do it better". That's garbage. You guys are phenomenal. I'm going to take a break and say thanks, Kate!

H: Thanks Kate!

T: I'm currently in a MA program for Disability Studies, and one of the chief things that we study is the social model of disability. From your episodes that cover disability history, it seems like you two are aware of the social model of disability, but for the sake of clarity, I'd like to give a quick and dirty explanation. Under the social model, disability is reframed as a social construct that ultimately marginalizes and oppresses people. Simplistically, if an individual is socially marginalized due to a perceived impairment or are unable to physically navigate a space because of a lack of access, they then become, quote, 'disabled'. In this way, it is not the impairment that has limited their choices and opportunities, but a given society's reaction to their impairment. As to the episode suggestion, I'd like to suggest the history of deaf individuals on Martha's Vineyard as studied by Nora Groce in Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Heredity Deafness on Martha's Vineyard. It is an outstanding example of inclusion and acceptance in an otherwise pretty bleak history of disability. Historically, Martha's Vineyard was a relatively isolated island with a high rate of people who were deaf and, uniquely, the hearing individuals all learned sign language to include their deaf community members instead of excluding them. This allowed people who were deaf to be full-fledged participants in the community, because they did not face any significant language barrier. I have found that when explaining the idea that disability is a social construct to people, I'm often met with a fair amount of skepticism. I like to use the example of Martha's Vineyard to show how the social model of disability works in actual practice: when society removes barriers, individuals do not become disabled, as they otherwise would, by perceived impairments. Keep up the great work, Ladies! You're the best!! Kate

T: I would like to say, YOU'RE the best, Kate.

H: Yeeeaaah, I concur.

T: We have gotten a couple of ah suggestions to talk about this before and ah as we often do, we just put things on the list - which is hundreds of things long - ah but Kate's email grabbed my attention immediately. Ah, we have not talked about it really on the show, but my mother is very significantly ah disabled ah because she does not have access to things that are basic. If she were able to access them it would be not so much regarded as disability. Kind of like, I wear glasses which by definition is a disability (my eyesight is not good) but, like, society does not regard having glasses as being disabled. Like that's a thing that's totally...except in small children who bully each other.

H: But that's just being jerks. That's not even perceiving the disabled versus not. That's just 'you're slightly different from me so I'll be a jerk about it'.

T: Yeah. So thanks so much Kate, for sending this email that captured my attention. Both of our attention, really, for this particular story. We will have lots of links to all the stuff in the show notes if you'd like to learn more about it.

Topics in this Podcast: Deaf history, Massachusetts, 20th century, disability, 19th century, 18th century, eugenics movement