A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] The birth of standardized sign language

Jonathan Edelstein has a fascinating post over at his blog about the troubles of the deaf caught up in the 18th century British judiciary system. How could they testify when, in the absence of any standardized sign language, no one knew what they wanted to communicate?

Sign language of a sort has existed since time immemorial, with deaf people developing signals for communication with family members and co-workers. Because these signals were not standardized, however, they were understood only by the user and those who knew him personally. Moreover, these sign languages extended only to the things the users needed to say, and might be useful for work or household matters but utterly useless to plead to an indictment or understand evidence at trial.

In those cases where deaf witnesses could read, it was possible to swear them in and put questions to them in written form, as was done in the 1742 housebreaking trial of Magdalen Swawbrook. The report of Swawbrook’s trial notes that, “the prosecutor being quite Deaf, he was sworn by a written Copy of the Oath, which he pronounced, and the Questions were all put to him by Writing.” (As it happened, the prosecutor was also Swawbrook’s father; his reason for swearing out a criminal complaint against his own daughter is not recorded, but the matter was irregular enough for the jury to acquit.)

Other deaf defendants were able to make themselves heard with the aid of family members or hearing witnesses, or through obviously understandable gestures. William Smith, a “deaf and dumb” man tried for highway robbery in 1797, was interpreted for by his brother, and James Saytuss’ indictment was explained by a former servant. In 1718, Sarah Dean, who was tried for theft, “signified by Signs that she found the Pocket book and Note in the Street.” Dean’s defense was aided, however, by the testimony of several witnesses who could hear and who corroborated her account through speech.

What happened when the first standardized systems of sign language came into play, I’ll leave to Jonathan to describe.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2006 at 11:27 pm

Posted in Assorted

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