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.
“It was generations that kept popping up in very isolated communities,” says Poole Nash, who in a lecture points out that more people in the area at that time had been to China on fishing boats than to Edgartown, which was only a few miles away. It was a Deaf utopia: everybody signed to communicate (how else would you speak to your neighbors, parents or friends?)—but hardly anyone outside the community knew about the language. In 1950, the last fluent MVSL speaker passed away. It would take 25 years for the language to reveal itself to off-islanders.
Poole Nash had become interested in sign language during her childhood on Martha’s Vineyard, when she would hide an American Sign Language (ASL) book in her school desk, sneakily teaching herself the alphabet. She learned that her great-grandmother knew signs, and they began “a secret language between us,” says Poole Nash, who began volunteering a camp with Deaf children at age nine, and made friends with Deaf peers near her secondary boarding school. (Usage note for “Deaf” versus “deaf”: Deaf is an identity and culture, while deaf refers to a condition.)
By the time she’d reached her freshman year at Boston University, where she studied American Sign Language, the dominant sign language in the United States, “the head of the department said, ‘Oh my gosh, you sign better than I do,” says Poole Nash. She was quickly sent to a new sign language research group called the New England Sign Language Society, where linguists from colleges like Harvard, Brown and MIT asked new questions about signs. “I just sat there with my jaw open for the whole first meeting,” Poole Nash says. “I had no idea that you could do this kind of research on sign languages–it was just how you did research on Greek or Latin.”
This was in the earliest days of sign language research, just a decade after academics began studying sign languages using a linguistic approach. Prior to this, any characteristic of sign language that differed from standard English was considered a “deaf idiom”, rather than the lingual syntax it is. Poole Nash ordered every sign language book she could find, but while they all made connections between gesture and sign, they didn’t talk about how words originated.
A paper by linguist Nancy Frishberg showed that older signs used two hands while newer signs used one, but no one knew how or why that happened. “A discussion was going on that was ‘how can we find out about old signs, and how do they compare to modern signs?’—and right away it clicked for me,” Poole Nash says.
All this time, Poole Nash had assumed her great-grandmother’s signs might have been related to signs from the Native Nations (which may have influenced MVSL), as Chilmark bordered on a Wampanoag reservation. Poole Nash gave her great-grandmother a call. “I asked ‘How do you know these signs?’ and she said ‘Because all these people were deaf.’” Suddenly, all the stories Poole Nash had heard about the island’s former residents came to life in a new way. Her own family knew this community. They were part of it.