The Legacy of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language

Just off the coast of Massachusetts lies Martha’s Vineyard, a charming and picturesque island with a rich history. Beneath its serene exterior, the island harbors a fascinating linguistic heritage that has captivated scholars for generations: Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language.

A village sign language once widely used on Martha’s Vineyard island from the early 1800s until 1952, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) was utilized by both Deaf and hearing community members, so Deafness was not a barrier to public engagement. The Deaf people who signed MVSL were highly independent.

Martha’s Vineyard’s sign language flourished due to the island’s unusually high proportion of Deaf inhabitants and the recessive nature of Deafness, which frequently produced both Deaf and hearing siblings within the same family. 

In 1854, when the Deaf population reached its peak, approximately one in 155 islanders was Deaf, compared to the national average of one in 5,730. The town of Chilmark had the highest concentration, averaging one Deaf person for every 25 residents. At one point, Squibnocket, a section of Chilmark, had a Deaf population as high as 25% out of 60 total residents.

The island’s sign language, MVSL, declined as the population migrated to the mainland. Today, there are no fluent signers left. Katie West, the last Deaf person born into the island’s signing tradition, died in 1952. Though a few elderly residents could still recall MVSL when linguists started studying the language in the 1980s, researchers have faced challenges resurrecting a language they cannot directly experience.

Origins of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL)

By 1714, hereditary Deafness had appeared on Martha’s Vineyard. Many of the Deaf inhabitants can trace their ancestry to the Weald, a wooded area in Kent, England. The sign language used on Martha’s Vineyard may have descended from Old Kent Sign Language used in the 16th century. In the early 17th century, families from a Puritan community in the Weald emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many of their descendants later settled on Martha’s Vineyard. Jonathan Lambert was the first Deaf settler; he moved there with his wife in 1694. Migration had virtually ceased by 1710, creating an endogamous community with a high incidence of hereditary Deafness that persisted for over 200 years.

American Sign Language’s Linguistic Melting Pot

In the early 19th century, a new educational approach emerged in the United States mainland. The American School for the Deaf, the country’s first school for Deaf students, opened in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817. Many Deaf children from Martha’s Vineyard enrolled at the school, bringing their unique sign language with them. The teachers used French Sign Language, while other Deaf students used home sign systems. The American School for the Deaf became known as the birthplace of the American Deaf community. The various sign languages used there, including Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, blended into what is now known as American Sign Language (ASL) – one of the largest community languages in the United States today.

Beginning of the End

The once hereditary Deafness of Martha’s Vineyard diminished as more Deaf islanders stayed on the mainland and intermarried with Deaf spouses whose hearing loss was not genetic.

At the start of the 20th century, the previously isolated fishing and farming community saw an influx of tourists that would become the economic mainstay. Jobs in tourism were less Deaf-friendly than the traditional livelihoods. As intermarriage and migration connected the islanders to the mainland, the unique island culture increasingly resembled that of the wider hearing community.

Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language declined after the opening of the American School for the Deaf in the early 19th century. Students from Martha’s Vineyard influenced the creation of American Sign Language by contributing signs from MVSL. However, when these students returned home, they brought ASL usage back with them. As a result, MVSL faded as ASL became more prevalent on the island. Additionally, improved transportation to the island in the 19th century led to an influx of hearing residents, reducing hereditary Deafness.

Deaf Experience on the Island

The Deaf people dependent on Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) lived typical lives despite their differences. They worked complex and simple jobs, attended island events, and participated in the community. Unlike many other Deaf communities globally, the Martha’s Vineyard Deaf were integrated into the general population. More often, Deaf communities remain isolated from the hearing world. The Martha’s Vineyard Deaf community of that period stands out for its exceptional integration.

On Martha’s Vineyard, Deaf users of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) faced challenges due to their Deafness, but were not excluded from the rest of society. Marriage between a Deaf and hearing person was extremely difficult to maintain, even if both could use MVSL. 

As a result, the Deaf often married other Deaf people, increasing the degree of inbreeding beyond that of the general Martha’s Vineyard population. These frequent Deaf-Deaf marriages led to a rise in the Deaf population over time, since all children of such couples inherited the shared recessive Deafness trait from their parents and were also congenitally Deaf. 

To help each other overcome issues related to Deafness, MVSL users formed a close-knit community. They entertained at community events and taught hearing children MVSL from an early age, so they could communicate with the many Deaf people encountered in school. Hearing people studied the language’s non-manual markers, like lip and facial movements, as well as hand gestures and mannerisms. 

Separate schools specifically for learning MVSL even existed. Sometimes, hearing people signed MVSL when no Deaf people were present – children behind a teacher’s back, adults during church sermons, farmers across fields, and fishermen between boats.

Sign Language on the Island Revised

With the goal of revitalizing American Sign Language on Martha’s Vineyard, Lynn Thorp began teaching residents weekly in the early 2000s after studying references like Ellen Groce’s “Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language” and the 1989 “Interax” teachings. A decade later, Thorp started offering regular American Sign Language classes at local community centers. Her decade-long mission has sparked a resurgence, with Edgartown Elementary recently incorporating ASL into their curriculum and other Island public schools soon to follow.

Until next time, ta ta! 😄🤟🏻

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