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Deaf History:  Martha's Vineyard
Also See "History"
Also see: Martha's Vineyard (2)

William Cameron
Nov. 16, 2005

The Historical Significance of Martha's Vineyard Sign Language

     For over 200 years, Deaf and Hearing worked, lived, and socialized
side-by-side in the rugged isolation of Martha's Vineyard (Mather &
McIntosh, undated).  The rugged, self-sufficient isolation of the island
contributed to genetic pooling, which served to magnify the number of
children born deaf (Mather & McIntosh).  The close family ties, also
contributed to the relative ease of acceptance of deafness (Mather &
McIntosh). Hearing and Deaf used sign language in everyday life (Kennedy
2004). In fact, Sign Language was taught to children from the cradle
("Martha's Vineyard", undated).
     In 1714, Jonathan Lambert was the first documented deaf individual
mentioned on Martha's Vineyard ("Martha's Vineyard"; Mather & McIntosh). 
However, it is evident sign language existed on Martha's Vineyard prior to
this date ("Martha's Vineyard"; "Sign Language", undated).  In the mid-19th
century, 1 out of 4 residents in the remote village of Chilmark were deaf
(Kennedy; "Martha's Vineyard"; "Martha's Vineyard Sign Language", undated).
This was in sharp contrast with the national average of 1 out of 6,000
("Martha's Vineyard Sign Language"). The last documented Chilmark Deaf,
Katie West, died in 1952 ("Martha's Vineyard").
How did Martha's Vineyard Sign Language originate?
     Early in the 17th century, members of the deaf community in County Kent
Weald, England moved to Martha's Vineyard ("Martha's Vineyard"; "Martha's
Vineyard Sign Language"; "Sign Language") The language they brought with
them has been referred to as Kent Sign Language ("Martha's Vineyard";
"Martha's Vineyard Sign Language").
     Kent Sign Language continued to develop, and in time came to be known
as Chilmark Sign Language in the 17th - 18th century ("Martha's Vineyard
Sign Language").
     By the 19th -- 20th century, Chilmark Sign Language combined with French
Sign Language to form Martha's Vineyard Sign Language ("Martha's Vineyard
Sign Language").
What is the historical significance of Martha's Vineyard Sign Language?
     In 1817, the school now known as the American School for the Deaf
opened in Hartford, Connecticut ("Sign Language"). Shortly after the
school's opening, most of the deaf children from Martha's Vineyard were
removed from the Island, and sent to Hartford to be educated ("Martha's
     The students from Martha's Vineyard were sent to Hartford as a group. 
As a group, they apparently continued to use their native sign language
("Martha's Vineyard").  In time, Martha's Vineyard Sign Language reportedly
became absorbed within the French-based sign language being taught at the
school ("Martha's Vineyard Sign Language"; "Sign Language").  This amalgam,
with a reported influence from the New York Deaf community, appears to have
contributed to the development of what we now know as American Sign Language
("Martha's Vineyard Sign Language").
     Unfortunately, the societal community which gave birth to Martha's
Vineyard Sign Language no longer exists.  Yet, the spirit of that societal
community does live on.  When those within the Hearing community take up and
embrace American Sign Language, they display a spirit which existed within
the societal community of Martha's Vineyard Sign Language for more than 200

     Kennedy, L. (2004, June 6).  Vineyard's Deaf Past is Retold in Drama of
Signs and Speech.  Boston Globe. Retrieved May 20, 2005 from

     Martha's Vineyard Sign Language. (undated).  Retrieved May 20, 2005

     Martha's Vineyard: Where Everyone Spoke Sign Language. (undated). 
Retrieved May 20, 2005 from

     Mather, R., and McIntosh, L (undated).  The Deaf of Martha's Vineyard. 
[Booklet]. Wellesley, MA: Dana Hall School.

     Sign Language: Moving People to Participate. (undated). Retrieved May
20, 2005 from


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