Martha's Vineyard Sign Language

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Martha's Vineyard Sign Language
Native to United States
Region Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
Extinct with the death of Katie West (1952)
Early forms
Language codes
ISO 639-3 mre
Glottolog mart1251[2]

Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) was a village sign language that was once widely used on the island of Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, U.S., from the early 18th century to 1952. It was used by both deaf and hearing people in the community; consequently, deafness did not become a barrier to participation in public life. Deaf people who spoke Martha's Vineyard Sign Language were extremely independent. They participated in society as typical citizens, although there were discrimination and language barriers.

The language was able to thrive on Martha's Vineyard because of the unusually high percentage of deaf islanders and because deafness was a recessive trait, which meant that almost anyone might have both deaf and hearing siblings. In 1854, when the island's deaf population peaked, the United States national average was one deaf person in about 5,730, while on Martha's Vineyard it was one in 155. In the town of Chilmark, which had the highest concentration of deaf people on the island, the average was 1 in 25; in a section of Chilmark called Squibnocket, as much as 1 in 4 of a population of 60 was deaf.[3]

Sign language on the island declined when the population migrated to the mainland. There are no fluent signers of MVSL today. The last deaf person born into the island's sign language tradition, Eva West, died in 1950, though there were a few elderly residents still able to recall MVSL when researchers started examining the language in the 1980s.[3] Linguists are working to save the rare language, but the task is difficult because they do not and cannot experience MVSL firsthand.


The hereditary deafness first appeared on Martha's Vineyard by 1714.

The ancestry of most of the deaf population of Martha's Vineyard can be traced back to a forested area in the south of England known as the Weald—specifically the part of the Weald in the county of Kent.[3] Martha's Vineyard Sign Language may be descended from a hypothesized sign language of that area in the 16th century, now referred to as Old Kent Sign Language. Families from a Puritan community in the Kentish Weald emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in British America in the early 17th century, many of their descendants later settling on Martha's Vineyard. The first deaf person known to have settled there was Jonathan Lambert, a carpenter and farmer, who moved there with his hearing wife in 1694. By 1710, the migration had virtually ceased, and the endogamous community that was created contained a high incidence of hereditary deafness that persisted for over 200 years.

By the 18th century there was a distinct Chilmark Sign Language, which was later (19th century) influenced by French Sign Language, forming Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (19th and 20th centuries). From the late 18th to the early 20th century, virtually everybody on Martha's Vineyard possessed some degree of fluency in the local sign language.

Deaf migration to the mainland[edit]

In the early 19th century, a new educational philosophy began to emerge on the mainland, and the country's first school for the deaf opened in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut (now called the American School for the Deaf). Many of the deaf children of Martha's Vineyard enrolled there, taking their sign language with them. The language of the teachers was French Sign Language, and many of the other deaf students used their own home sign systems. This school became known as the birthplace of the deaf community in the U.S., and the different sign systems used there, including MVSL, merged to become American Sign Language or ASL—now one of the largest community languages in the country.

As more deaf people remained on the mainland, and others who returned brought with them deaf spouses they met there (whose hearing loss may not have been due to the same hereditary cause), the line of hereditary deafness began to diminish. As the 20th century began, the previously isolated community of fishers and farmers began to see the influx of tourists that would become a mainstay in the island economy. The jobs in tourism were not as deaf-friendly as fishing and farming had been. Further, as intermarriage and migration joined the people of Martha's Vineyard to the mainland, the island community more and more resembled the wider community there.

The last deaf person born into the island's sign language tradition, Katie West, died in 1952. A few elderly residents were able to recall MVSL as recently as the 1980s when research into the language began. Indeed, when Oliver Sacks subsequently visited the island after reading a book on the subject,[4] he noted that a group of elderly islanders talking together dropped briefly into sign language then back into speech.[5]

Life as a deaf person in Martha's Vineyard[edit]

There have been deaf people on Martha's Vineyard since the 18th century. The development of cochlear implants in the late 20th century brought major changes. The implants allowed deaf people to hear more efficiently and clearly, but they did not consider them as helpful as was expected.[6] The hearing implants were, at first, not accepted due to the fact that they viewed the new technology as a mechanism to help the handicapped. The deaf people in Martha's Vineyard did not define themselves as handicapped. Eventually the cochlear implants were used by younger generations and MVSL slowly declined, but it certainly wasn't needed.[7]

Although the people who were dependent on MVSL were different, they still did the same activities as the normal Martha's Vineyard citizen would. The deaf would work both complex and simple jobs, attend island events, and participate within the community. They were treated as normal people, which is extremely different from other deaf communities around the world. The deaf living in rural Mexico have a similar community, but few hearing people live there permanently.[8] Other deaf communities are often isolated from the hearing population; the Martha's Vineyard deaf community of that period is exceptional in its integration into the general population.[9]

Deaf MVSL users were not excluded by the rest of society at Martha's Vineyard, but they certainly faced challenges due to their deafness. Marriage between a deaf person and a hearing person was extremely difficult to maintain, even though both could use MVSL. For this reason, the deaf usually married the deaf, raising the degree of inbreeding even beyond that of the general population of Martha's Vineyard.[10] These deaf-deaf marriages are what really increased the deaf population within this community.[11] The MVSL users often associated closely, helping and working with each other to overcome other issues caused by deafness. They entertained at community events, teaching hearing youngsters more MVSL. The sign language was spoken and taught to hearing children as early as their first years, in order to communicate with the many deaf people they would encounter in school.[12] Lip movement, hand gestures, mannerisms, and facial expressions were all studied.[13] There were even separate schools specifically for learning MVSL.[14] Hearing people sometimes signed even when there were no deaf people present. For example, children signed behind a schoolteacher's back, adults signed to one another during church sermons, farmers signed to their children across a wide field, and fishermen signed to each other from their boats across the water where the spoken word would not carry.[4]

Outside of Martha's Vineyard, though, deaf people were discriminated against. This drove them to try extremely hard to be accepted by locals, which also explains why at first the cochlear implants were not utilized.[11]


Martha's Vineyard Sign Language declined after the opening of the American School for the Deaf. Although students from Martha's Vineyard influenced the creation of American Sign Language with contributions from MVSL, when they returned home, they brought ASL usage back with them, and MVSL faded. Additionally, as transportation became easier in the 19th century, the influx of hearing people meant that more genetic diversity was introduced, and hereditary deafness was no longer commonplace. The last person in the line of hereditary deafness of Martha's Vineyard was Katie West, who died in 1952. Following her death, Oliver Sacks noted in the 1980s that some elderly hearing residents of the island could remember a few signs, but the language truly died out after this point.[15]

See also[edit]

A lecture on Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language history by Joan Poole-Nash


[16] [17]

  1. ^ "Martha's Vineyard Sign Language". Lifeprint. Retrieved 13 October 2015. 
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Martha's Vineyard Sign Language". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ a b c Article in Chilmark Deaf Community
  4. ^ a b Groce, Nora Ellen (1985). Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-27041-X. Retrieved 21 October 2010. 
  5. ^ Sacks, Oliver (1989). Seeing Voices: a Journey into the World of the Deaf. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. pp. 35–36. ISBN 0-520-06083-0. Retrieved 21 October 2010. 
  6. ^ Levy, Neil (2002). "Reconsidering Cochlear Implants: The Lessons of Martha's Vineyard". Bioethics. 16: 2. doi:10.1111/1467-8519.00275 – via Google Scholar. (subscription required)
  7. ^ Whitting, John (1985-01-01). Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674270411. 
  8. ^ Dehn, Georgia (2015). "Signs of Life". Daily Telegraph – via Points of View Reference Center. 
  9. ^ Groce, Nora. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language. pp. 10–14. 
  10. ^ Perlmutter, David (1986). "No Nearer to the Soul". Natural Language and Linguistics Theory. 4: 515–23. doi:10.1007/bf00134471. 
  11. ^ a b Kusters, A. (2010-01-01). "Deaf Utopias? Reviewing the Sociocultural Literature on the World's "Martha's Vineyard Situations"". Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. 15 (1): 3–16. doi:10.1093/deafed/enp026. ISSN 1081-4159. 
  12. ^ Template:Cite journal.
  13. ^ Template:Cite journalb
  14. ^ "The Marthas Vineyard Summer School". Journal of Education. 
  15. ^ Sacks, Oliver. 1989. Seeing voices: a journey into the world of the deaf. [Toronto]: Stoddart.
  16. ^ Poole-Nash, Joan (April 3, 2014). Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MSVL) of the past (Public lecture/YouTube video). Fall River, Massachusetts: Bristol Community College. 
  17. ^ Bakken Jepsen, Julie; De Clerck, Goedele; Lutalo-Kiingi, Sam; McGregor, William (2015). Sign Languages of the World: A Comparative Handbook. Preston, UK: Walter De Gruyter, Inc. ISBN 978-1-61451-796-2. Retrieved 28 February 2017.