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Language Extinction and American Sign Language: 

Language Extinction and American Sign Language
by Joy Fisher

Martha's Vineyard is located in Massachusetts and beginning in the 17th century hereditary deafness was very common among the local inhabitants. In response to the high number of residents who could not hear (or learn) spoken English, a sign language emerged which the residents called "Chilmark Sign Language". In the 1820s many of the younger residents from the Martha's Vineyard community traveled to the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. As the children began to learn the still-developing American Sign Language, the students, who were from all over the country and who brought their own "home signs" or their set of signs used when communicating with family and friends, also affected American Sign Language. Even though many children were educated at the School for the Deaf, some still held on to MVSL (Martha's Vineyard Sign Language) in order to communicate with their family and friends who had not been taught ASL (Groce, 1985).

 "A language is considered extinct when there are no more native speakers". For MVSL, it officially became extinct when Katie West, who was the last Martha's Vineyard native signer, died in 1952. Even though MVSL is now extinct, there were still residents of Martha's Vineyard who could use the signs in the early 1980s (Pelucchi, 2006). When a community loses its language the same community also loses a large part of their cultural identity so when MVSL was lost, a part of the community's identity was also lost. Usually languages are referred to as extinct when children are no longer being taught the language and a language is identified as endangered when only a few children are being taught the language (Woodbury,). American Sign Language, which is still considered a young language by many linguists, does not seem to be endangered at all because sign language is still growing in popularity in the U.S. Deaf parents are not the only ones who are teaching their children ASL, hearing parents are also trying to teach their children sign language while they are first learning English because studies have shown that a child can grasp the use of words better through the use of a mix of signing and spoken language. The deaf community in America and all over the world has been put to the question of changing their community identity through the use of new medical technologies that can allow a person who is deaf to hear. If a lot of people were to change their bodies in order to hear then the deaf community would have to decide how to classify this new group of people and ASL would move a few steps closer to being an endangered language but this entire scenario depends on a very large "if".

 At this time there is no "universal sign language". A committee of the World Federation of the Deaf developed a sign form called Gestuno which was really an agreed upon vocabulary of signs that were to be used at the federation's international meetings. Karen Nakamura in her article "About American Sign Language" argues that Gestuno still does not qualify as a universal sign language because federation members still sign their native language when they are not in meetings and Gestuno is not being taught to children universally (Nakamura, 1995). No one can say with any certainty which languages will fall into extinction but one can hope that their own language will wield some influence on the languages that survive or develop in the future.


 Groce, Nora Ellen (1985). Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

 Nakamura, Karen (1995,Jul.13). About American Sign Language. Deaf Resource Library. Retrieved  30, Mar. 2009:

 Pelucchi, Bruna (2006). Speaking with Hands: the Birth of a New Sign Language. Le Scienze Web News. Retrieved 29, Mar. 2009:

Woodbury, Anthony. What is an Endangered Language? Linguistic Society of America. Retrieved 29, Mar. 2009:


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