Also see: Martha's
By: Ricky Ryan
To understand how American Sign Language became such a
big part of Martha's Vineyard, it's imperative to know a few things
about the island beforehand. The small island was first discovered
by the Vikings in the year 1000 A.D. In 1524, a second explorer from
Italy named Verrazano would land on this island and name the island
Claudia. However, the name Claudia was never used on the island.
Bartholomew Gosnold, a second explorer, came from Falmouth, England
and was headed to Virginia by ship. Gosnold’s ship was lead off
course by the wind and he actually ended up saving thousands of
miles and weeks of time because of this. He landed on a cape and
ended up naming it Cape Cod, because of all the fish nearby. He
headed southward after landing on this cape and stumbled across an
island. He later called it Martha’s Vineyard, after his mother and
all the grape vines on the land. Bartholomew was a key explorer to
the island because he named a good majority of the land and he
settled the first colony on Martha’s Vineyard.
Seven-hundred years later, sign language became evident in Jonathan
Lambert, the first settler known to have been Deaf. Through the
generations, two out of four children were born Deaf, making the
isolated Island half deaf and half hearing. The hearing and Deaf
people would live side by side with no problems or discrimination
toward one another. A majority of the Deaf people had lived in
Chilmark, a medium sized town that spoke a different form of sign
language. When they came to Martha's Vineyard the two forms mixed.
This would lead to MVSL (Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language). People
were equal on the island and sign language wasn’t solely for the
Deaf. It was for hearing people as well and it was naturally
integrated into the spoken language. Being Deaf wasn’t a disability.
It was simply a genetic difference, like eye or hair color.
Martha’s Vineyard is unfortunately no longer a Deaf utopia, because
most of the Deaf community has left. This is due to members of the
family moving to the mainland to get their education. They
eventually got married and stayed there. When the Deaf people left
Martha’s Vineyard, they were stunned at how negative people treated
them because they were Deaf. This was unfathomable because, as
stated before, in their culture Deaf and hearing were the same.
However, some of the traditions that came from the island still live
on today. American School for the Deaf opened in Hartford,
Connecticut. That school is the main reason Martha’s Vineyard’s Deaf
community left the island. The
teachers at the Deaf School were using French Sign Language and the
students from the Island were using their native language, MVSL. The
two mixed and eventually helped form Modern American Sign Language.
Not only was it the birth of ASL, but it was the beginning of the
Deaf community on the mainland.
In conclusion, if there is one thing Martha’s Vineyard did for the
Deaf community today, it would be to establish that the Deaf are not
disabled in truth but merely labeled as disabled by our hearing
community. The small island went from an unknown piece of land, to a
Deaf Utopia, and to a modern society for both the hearing and Deaf
cultures alike. American Sign Language can thank the Deaf community
on Martha's Vineyard for their part in their current language. Sign
language has flourished in today’s society and is widely recognized
as a standard way for communication for the Deaf.
Jamie, (9/5/2010) Deaf History - Martha's Vineyard, About.com,
Duck,Joe,(April,29,2012) Martha’s Vineyard: A History of
Deaf Equality on a Little Island,Blog4history.com(3/17/13)
Baer, C. "Http://history.vineyard.net/hfnorton/history.htm."
History of Martha's Vineyard.
Robert Payne, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2013. <http://history.vineyard.net/hfnorton/history.htm>.
You can learn American Sign Language (ASL) online at American Sign Language University ™
ASL resources by Lifeprint.com © Dr. William Vicars