La Mont West

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La Mont West, Jr. (born 2 July 1930) is an anthropologist. He received his PhD in Anthropology from Indiana University in 1960. He specializes in sign languages, which he has studied among Native American Indians and Aboriginal Australians.


West attended Cornell University, majoring in economics, from September 1947 to February 1951, and also from February 1955 to June 1955. He attended Indiana University as a PhD candidate, majoring in anthropology, and became a protegé of Charles F. Voegelin, his doctoral supervisor, and Alfred L. Kroeber,[1] who were concerned with the neglect suffered by the topic since the late 19th century.[2] He was at Indian University from June 1955 to June 1959, doing field work among Plain Indian the results of which were published with his doctoral dissertation, entitled "The Sign Language, An Analysis,"a study of Plains Indian Sign Language, which was the most sophisticated non-verbal language among North American Indians.[3] Both Kroeber and Voegelin had done some work on sign languages, building on the pioneering work of Garrick Mallery and LaMont's 2 volumes constituted what was the most comprehensive fieldwork survey and analysis of the American native sign system.[4] He discovered this variety had two distinct dialects.,[5] and expanded the inventory of known signs, hitherto numbered as ranging from one to three thousand, into a rrepertoire of 3,500 distinct signs.[5] It was often thought that use of sign language indicated lack of linguistic acumen, with an inability to master English: West's informants often proved to be multi-lingual, fluent in English also.[6] Far from dying out, he discovered that the mute language had expanded its geographic horizons by spreading up into Canada from British Columbia through Manitoba, into areas where it had formerly been unknown.[5]

West received a grant from AIAS (now AIATSIS) to study Australian Aboriginal sign languages for one year. He spun out the grant to enable him to conduct research for a full two years, by leading a spartan life, skipping meals and living rough as he travelled virtually everywhere over the Australian continent. He was known to prefer interviewing the eldest tribal men, whatever their state of health, rather than use younger informants.[7] LaMont regarded the hand languages as self-contained language systems, though coexisting with formal languages, and focused on developing a notastional system to enable morphemic and phonemic analysis.[8]

He recorded traditional didgeridoo music by Aboriginal Elders. These are some of the earliest known recordings, and selections were released commercially in 1963 as Arnhem Land Popular Classics[9] He spent time at the Lockhart River Mission, Queensland where he managed to film the local initiation ceremony (bora).[10]

West is reputedly reclusive, though most of the materials and artifacts he collected were, after he was contacted by Bruce Rigsby, donated to the National Museum of Australia Canberra.[11] Attempts by scholars to contact him since have apparently failed.[12]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ Davis 2010, pp. 86,90.
  2. ^ Meadows 2015, p. 22.
  3. ^ Meadows 2015, pp. 3–4.
  4. ^ Davis 2010, pp. 62,90.
  5. ^ a b c Meadows 2015, p. 23.
  6. ^ Neisser 1990, p. 92.
  7. ^ Dixon 2011, p. 10.
  8. ^ Davis 2010, pp. 86,90–91.
  9. ^ Seal 1993, p. 367.
  10. ^ Smith 2008, p. 199.
  11. ^ Walsh 2001.
  12. ^ Davis 2010, p. 216.

Works cited[edit]