by Nicole Colterman (08/27/2020)
Martha’s Vineyard, home of astonishing landscapes, fishing towns, marvelous summer homes and one of the first known deaf communities in the United States. From the late 1600’s to early 1900’s Martha’s Vineyard had 1 in every 155 people born deaf, where the rest of America was 1 in every 5,700. The first known deaf resident was Jonathan Lambert, who immigrated from Kent County England. Lambert brought with him regional signs from Kent which over years helped to evolve and spread into Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). By the mid 1900’s MVSL was a dying language and the residence, who were once fluent, were unable to communicate the signs. Lynn Thorp, a long time resident of the island, see’s the importance of keeping the language alive and is working with the Chambers of Commerce to help bring back it’s history and let it the language thrive once again. American Sign Language (ASL) is one of the largest community languages in America but the signs have so much history to them, do we really know where it all came from?
In the late 1600’s immigrants were coming from England and began settling on the Cape and surrounding islands. Jonathan Lambert and his wife arrived in a small town on Martha’s Vineyard called Chilmark in 1964. This is where they started their family of 7 children, 2 of which were born deaf like their father and were the first congenitally deaf residents. Due to Chilmark being such a small rural fishing community and the fact that there was no port to come in and out of, many who came from off-island were residing in other areas of the island. This left Chilmark to be a very secluded community where residents married and had children almost exclusively with one another. As a result of the inherited genetic mutation that was traced back to Kent County England and the Lambert Family, deafness soon spread throughout the town of Chilmark. Chilmark, by the middle of the 19th century, had 1 in every 25 deaf born residents.
During the span of 200 years in Chilmark sign language did not just belong to the deaf but it belonged to the who community. Bowdin Van Riper, the librarian at Martha’s Vineyard Museum, stated “People tended to think of the deaf folks in Chilmark as individuals first, and not about their disabilities, except in peripheral way.” There was such a remarkably high concentration of deafness in the town that deafness was not abnormal. To Martha’s Vineyard residents signing became a life skill, “It was passed on to kids as part of, ‘Here’s the stuff you need to know to make a living in this corner of the world,’” Van Riper said. In 1817 the first school for the deaf was build in Hartford, Connecticut. Students from all over attended and brought with them their own household signs, the school’s first teacher, Laurent Clerc brought French Sign Language and then there were the residents from Martha’s Vineyard that brought MVSL. These strains merged and helped form what we know today as American Sign Language (ASL).
By the late 1800’s, with the formation of ASL and the broken down barriers between the mainland and the island, MVSL started to fade as part of the everyday culture of the island. More off-island people started to marry residents and break the hereditary cycle and less and less deaf were being born on Martha’s Vineyard. In 1952 the last person with Lambert’s hereditary deafness died leaving MVSL completely fading out. Lynn Thorp has been making it her mission to bring back the history and deaf culture to the island. Lynn who recognizes the islands aging population along with the historical importance of MVSL to the island has been working with schools, libraries, nurse’s association and the Chamber of Commerce to revive the language. “Think about families who have lost touch with loved ones because they can’t communicate. What is we could help people learn simple things? … wouldn’t it be great to have a second language again?” states Thorp. She also has devoted so much of her time to the history of deaf culture and what it meant to the development in MV. She wants to reach people from off-island and let them know that ASL was developed from vineyard signs and teach them about the way life was on the island back then.
Martha’s Vineyard, although but a speck on a map has so much history to deaf culture in American. Being one of the founding deaf communities and signs evolving into ASL have gifted us with tradition, culture and a way living side by side and not divided. Nora Groce, a medical anthropologist at University College London stated “Signs are not arbitrary. They have a history to them,” and I couldn’t agree more.
MVTimes-Brittany Bowker 2020, Reviving sign language on Martha’s Vineyard, accessed August 2th 2020, <https://www.mvtimes.com/2020/02/19/reviving-sign-language-marthas-vineyard/>
The Atlantic-Cari Romm 2015, The Life and Death of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, accessed August 26th 2020, <https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/09/marthas-vineyard-sign-language-asl/407191/>