American Sign Language (ASL) might not have the respect that it does today, if not for the work of William C. Stokoe, Jr. (1919-2000).
Sign Language Before Stokoe:
Before Stokoe began his work, sign language was not seen as a real language. Instead, it was seen as a collection of meaningless gestures or pantomime. This viewpoint was preventing sign language from gaining respect and from being used in education of deaf children. (Ironically, the book Deaf Heritage
points out that Stokoe himself did not sign well at the time). The lack of respect for sign language
was really limiting its use at the time. Stokoe himself estimated that the number of American and Canadian users of ASL was only 200,000 to 400,000 people.
Stokoe Arrives at Gallaudet College:
In 1955, Stokoe, who had both a bachelor’s and a Ph.D. degree in English, arrived at Gallaudet College (now University) to chair the English department. He became interested in ASL and set out to prove it was a real language. In 1957, Stokoe and two assistants (Carl Croneberg and Dorothy Casterline) began to film people using sign language. Studying the filmed sign language, Stokoe and his team identified the elements of a real language being used. The results of their research were published in 1960 in a research monograph, "Sign Language Structure."
Stokoe Continues Research:
The sign language research continued, and in 1965, his team published the book A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles. Although Sign Language Structure came out first, the dictionary was the book that grabbed people's attention and sparked a growing interest in the linguistics of ASL.
Stokoe's Point of View:
Stokoe's argument was simple. He said ASL is both a native and a natural language. Native means that it is the first language learned (for children born into environments supporting sign language). Natural means that it is a language used everyday. Stokoe's work demonstrated that sign language IS a language, and today ASL is recognized as a language. This has led to an increase in its use.
Stokoe's Research and Publishing Career:
In 1971, Stokoe set up a Linguistic Research Laboratory at Gallaudet. In 1972, he founded the international sign language journal Sign Language Studies, which is today published by Gallaudet University Press. He also owned Linstok Press, which published books on sign language.
In 1980, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) published Sign Language and the Deaf Community: Essays in Honor of William C. Stokoe. The NAD also established the William C. Stokoe Scholarship Fund to encourage sign language research. Sign Language Studies honored Stokoe with Sign Language Studies 1.4, Summer 2001, a Stokoe retrospective reprinting five articles and an editorial by Stokoe, including: "The Study and Use of Sign Language," and "Sign Language versus Spoken Language." Also, Stokoe was a Professor Emeritus at Gallaudet University. And in 1988, he received an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet.
Books By and About Stokoe:
The last book Stokoe worked on was Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech.
, published post-humously by Gallaudet University Press. In this book, Stokoe indicates that speech is not necessary for language. Another Gallaudet University Press book, Seeing Language in Sign: The Work of William C. Stokoe
, is a biography that details his often testy relationship with administrators at Gallaudet.
Gannon, Jack R. ,Deaf Heritage, National Association of the Deaf, 1981. pp. 365-367.
William C. Stokoe, page on Gallaudet University Press site.