The Hidden History of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL)
Martha's Vineyard holds a special place in the heart of American Deaf history. The deaf gene had a high incidence there. So, everyone had a deaf family member (or several). Because of that, everyone grew up learning sign language, whether they were deaf or hearing. Without linguistic and social barriers (like those caused by audism), deaf people were fully integrated into everyday life. They weren't thought of as disabled, because they were not less accommodated in society and the work place than hearing people.
Martha's Vineyard wasn't just a utopia for deaf people, it was also a utopia for linguists. It held important clues about the evolution of sign language in America, and helped linguists come to the conclusion that sign languages were languages, and not just a collection of gestures.
So, here's a bit of history about Martha's Vineyard, and Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL):
IN 1979 IN THE TOWN of Chilmark, on Martha’s Vineyard, Joan Poole Nash sat across from her great-grandmother Emily Howland Poole, surrounded by a team of linguists and a video camera. “Do you remember the signs for rain or snow?” In response her great-grandmother moved her hands, which were recorded on grainy, black-and-white-tape.
The old woman continued: “This of course was marriage…and this was courting.” The room, according to transcripts from the interview, oohed and aahed. Poole Nash then interviewed her grandfather and others, but none were Deaf— they’d learned sign language as a natural part of growing up in Martha’s Vineyard prior to the 1950s. The entire area was once fluent in their own sign language dialect, though by the ‘70s, only a few speakers remained. On this island several miles off the southeast coast of Massachusetts, Poole Nash had uncovered a piece of Deaf culture and language that had been hidden for decades, and was almost lost.
For two centuries Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) was used by hearing and Deaf people alike, specifically in the Squibnocket part of the Chilmark area of the island, which was isolated by swamps and rocks. Due to inherited deafness, one out of every 25 people were deaf by the 1850s—compared with a national average of one in every 5,728 people.