William Stokoe – or William C. Stokoe Jr. – changed the course of American Sign Language history. Before Stokoe, ASL was not seen as a real language. It was seen as meaningless gestures or pantomime and because of this, ASL wasn’t even considered for use in the education of deaf children–a type of education they so greatly need. And not only did Stokoe prove that ASL was a language at that time, his books also proved that Deaf culture is a real culture! Stokoe truly played a major part in the history of sign language.
William Stokoe Articles by Students
Who is your favorite person from deaf history?
by Brittany Pare | October 30, 2016
My favorite person from Deaf history is William Stokoe because he was able to prove that Sign Language was a real language, not just a translation of English. This was an incredibly important milestone for the Deaf community because it allowed for American Sign Language to be recognized as a national language and used in schools to education Deaf Students. It is also important because it allows for people to learn it (just like with StartASL) like any other language. Proving that ASL has its own unique syntax and grammar also adds to the Deaf Culture because it proves that Deaf individuals are not just translating English, but using their own unique language. ASL is the cornerstone of Deaf Culture and having their own language helps set their culture apart from the hearing culture.
It could be argued that William Stokoe also opened the door for Total Communication philosophy because sign, as well as speech and lipreading could be used all together in the classroom to give each student what he or she needed. Without William Stokoe, using ASL in the classroom and teaching ASL in a classroom setting would be much further behind where it is today. I often have to “stand up” for ASL when people tell me it is just another form of English and its 2016 so I understand why William Stokoe’s work was so important in the 1960s.
William C. Stokoe
by Jennifer Spain Greene | June 5, 2017
William C. Stokoe is my favorite Historical Deaf Figure, because he saw deaf people as special and unique, and recognized the signs of a language being formed when other educators wrote off sign language as a “poor substitute for speech” in 1955. In the 1960s Stokoe saw that sign language met all the requirements to be considered its own language, and knew that insisting that students learn how to communicate orally and learn how to read lips wasn’t the best way to learn or teach.But because he didn’t have a background in linguistics, he was scorned and laughed at by his peers. To prove what he believed, Stokoe founded the Linguistics Research Laboratory and, a bit later, the Journal of Sign Language Studies in 1972, to keep the public informed about his unpopular opinion and theories. he also co-wrote The Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles in 1965. Because of his early pioneering, and perseverance the decision that the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf made in Milan in 1880, that decided that the oralism method of teaching deaf people was proven to not be the best way for the majority of deaf people to learn, would never have been repealed, and those are some of the reasons that William C. Stokoe , “The Father of Linguistics in the Field of American Sign Language”, is my favorite figure in deaf history. because without him, the deaf community would most likely be struggling for rights, wouldn’t have learned a universal language, and many people would be living with no way to communicate. He spent years of his life dedicated to helping thousands of people to build the foundations of today’s ASL language, and help people realize that it is a genuine language with several ways to learn it and with multiple “Dialects” (ways to sign). He made it so children of the future wouldn’t have to go through the difficulty and hardship of using the oralism method that many deaf people of the past were forced to use so often that ASL almost died out completely.
William C. Stokoe Jr. – A Present History In The Making
by Monique Fournier-Lavoie (Whitefish, ON Canada) | October 29, 2010
After having carefully read and reread Step Three in The ASL Student’s Essential Guide To Learning American Sign Language And Getting Involved In The Deaf Community, I took an immediate interest in the work and dedication of William C. Stokoe Jr. (1919-2000)
I went on to further educate myself via Google the history of this man by typing in his name and reading an article by Jamie Berke, About.com: Deafness which was updated December 07, 2008.
It read, “before Stokoe began his work, sign language was not seen as a real language. Instead, it was seen as a collection of meaningless gestures or pantomime. This viewpoint was preventing sign language from gaining respect and from being used in education of deaf children.”
Ok, right there is where it caught my attention. Children are of such important aspect of each of our lives and it was fast moving in the destruction of our future leaders. Each generation is made up of the education we give to our little ones and what they will bring to society as a whole, whether, hearing, deaf, blind, debilitated with disease or otherwise.
Mr. Stokoe saw the writing on the wall when the Milan Conference nearly destroyed any kind of future promise for the children of our future society.
Before arriving at Gallaudet College, (now University) William Stokoe estimated that of the American and Canadian users of ASL was only two hundred thousand for the estimated four hundred thousand deaf people of these two nations. He saw the need to accomplish the goal of reintroducing ASL as a distinct actual language for all people’s of the deaf and hard of hearing communities so that the majority of humans in the hearing societies would understand and know how valuable each individual was in their own rights.
Futher quoted, “in 1957, Stokoe and two assistants (Carl Croneberg and Dorothy Casterline) began to film people using sign language. Studying the filmed sign language, Stokoe and his team identified the elements of a real language being used. The results of their research were published in 1960 in a research monograph, “Sign Language Structure.” The sign language research continued, and in 1965 his team published the book A Dictionary Of American Sign language On Linguistic Principles. This dictionary is the very book that caught the people’s attention and sparked a growing interest in the linguistics of ASL.”
Mr. Stokoe saw that it was necessary for the children and people’s of America to see and understand that ASL was both a native and natural language in that it took practice to learn the different finger/hand movements to understand what was being said while the natural movement of the body which we call today Non-Manual Markers was a natural reaction to the gestures which make up ASL.
Although Mr. William C. Stokoe Jr. is not the founding father of the deaf education, he is a resounding detrimental piece of the ASL puzzle of education. His work and dedication to the rights of the deaf community leave an impressive stamp on the hearts of many people for which I am one. My granddaughter, Rebecca who was born in Thailand, void of ASL education, parents not finding the time to learn due to their over bearing schedules as missionaries in a foreign country, and facing a life threatening disease of Leukodystrophy is deaf and unlearned for these passed eight years and now has an opportunity to communicate with the dedicated individuals who will take the time to learn a new (and exciting I might add), language that will fulfill her communication needs.
Thank you to the memory of Mr. William C. Stokoe Jr.
Discovering the Beauty of Sign Language
by Kendra Wolcott | March 8, 2013
I’ll never forget the first time I truly witnessed Sign Language in use: I was lazing around in my room, absent-mindedly watching a music video on YouTube when I noticed that during the final few moments of the video, the lead singer, rather than simply mouthing the words to the chorus, signed the words to convey the meaning (as he was an Australian artist, he was using Australian Sign Language, but of course I didn’t realize this at the time). I was immediately taken aback, and by the time the video was over, I had tears in my eyes; I had never seen Sign Language used in such a context before, to pull meaning from a song and express it through hand motions and body language, and I thought it was absolutely beautiful. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to learn to sign.
By the time this happened, I had some prior knowledge of Sign Language; I could sign the alphabet in ASL and I vaguely remembered being taught simple signs in elementary school, but I had never drawn a parallel between those signs and a true, complex language. Even in the weeks after seeing that music video, when I was looking up vocabulary words and trying to teach myself to sign other songs, I thought that it was simply a word for word translation of English, or a visual representation of English on the hands. It had never occurred to me that it might have its own set of grammatical rules and structures, and looking back on that now, I realize what a terrible misconception that is. That is why my favorite person from Deaf history is William Stokoe.
When I say that he is my favorite, I don’t necessarily mean that I like him more than anyone else; every single person involved in the history of the Deaf played an important role in shaping the lives of Deaf people in America today, and all of them should be recognized for their contributions. But by establishing that ASL is a unique language unto itself, I truly think that William Stokoe made the most influential contribution in the way that the Deaf community as a whole has come to be perceived by hearing society.
Though the establishment of residential schools and other schools for the Deaf led to the creation of ASL and became wonderful places for Deaf people to share their language, become connected with people who they could understand and share ideas with, cultivate a culture, and prove that they could be just as successful as hearing people, they were still misunderstood by the majority of hearing society. For so long, ASL was dismissed as trivial, a set of gestures that could only communicate concrete ideas, and Oralism only intensified that ignorance. So to have a hearing person actually prove to everyone that ASL is a language just as unique, complex, and valid as any spoken language, well, it seems as though that truly caused hearing people to open their minds and gain a new appreciation for Deaf people and the beautiful language they share.
Today, the Deaf community is considered by many people to be an ethnic group; without the recognition of ASL as a true language, this would have never happened. Today, I hear so many people commenting on how fascinating Sign Language is and how much they would love to learn it. Because of William Stokoe and his passion for ASL, Deaf people are more free to express their native language, and the Deaf community is finally gaining the recognition that it deserves. And as a result, there are thousands of hearing people around the world who, just like myself, are moved and inspired every day by this beautiful, rich, incredible language.
“Father of ASL Linguistics”
by Julie (USA) | April 2, 2013
After reading this article, I decided to look into the life of William Stokoe because the work he did for Gallaudet as well as the development of American Sign Language interested me. I believe that he played an integral part in growing the deaf community and working to make American Sign Language an official language.
Before I started this course, I was not aware of all of the controversy surrounding deaf culture, but had only known that American Sign Language was used to communicate with the deaf. Without William Stokoe, I would not even had known this since ASL only became validated once he proved that it was a language with its own phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics, which are the classifications of a mature and legitimate language.
By studying the semantics of ASL at Gallaudet and writing his dissertation, “Sign Language Structure,” he was able to demonstrate that American Sign Language was indeed a real language and beneficial to deaf people. He overcame much oppression from people who supported oralism as well as Gallaudet University, who shut down his study because they were not in favor of ASL at the time.
Because of William Stokoe, ASL is recognized as a language which greatly helps to improve deaf communication as well as bring awareness to deaf culture. Without the “Father of ASL Linguistics,” the deaf community would be very different and would lack the representation of a beautiful language.
William Stokoe finally gets the world to hear
by Jude Mitchell (Apple Valley, CA U.S.A.) | March 18, 2010
I actually have three favorites. The first is Ludwig Von Beethoven. He developed his own method of composing music even though he was deaf. By placing his cheek on the top of the piano while he played, he could actually feel the sound.
My second is Marlee Matlin. By watching her movies, I got my first personal exposure to someone who is deaf. It made me realize that the only difference between us was our form of language. This is when I decided that I would like to learn sign language. I want to show the same respect and consideration to all people that I meet, whether it is saying hello, excuse me, or I love that shirt!
Of all of the people involved in the history of sign language, my favorite is William Stokoe. Although he was a hearing person, he found a way to explain sign language to a hearing world that up to that point, appeared to be quite deaf themselves. Because of intolerance, ignorance, and discomfort, the whole world found it easier to cast out people who were not like them. The deaf community had been communicating with each other and the world around them since the beginning of time, yet no one else took the time to hear them.
I would like to add one more thing. I was totally surprised by the attitude of Alexander Graham Bell. I believed that he was into providing ways for people to communicate with each other because he knew the importance of human connection. I was wrong! If what I believed was true, he would have learned to communicate in sign language, and the TDD might have been invented long before it was.
Comment by Jenn Phillps:
Thank you so much for what you said about my Grandfather, Dr. William Stokoe. I myself am a linguistics major studying ASL and interpreting and am doing some research on Deaf Culture and History – that’s when I came across your post. My Grandfather was passionate about language and very misunderstood when he started his own research of the signed language he observed when he arrived at Gallaudet. He was determined to make people understand that this was just as much of a legitimate language as English or any other spoken language was. Although I know I’m biased, he’s my favorite, too.
My Favorite Person in Deaf History
by Bailey Ryan (Palm Beach, Florida) | January 4, 2014
My favorite person in deaf history by far is William Stokoe. Before I had read this article, Hellen Keller was my favorite, because she was the only deaf person I knew about. But when I heard about William Stokoe, I quickly changed my mind.
His proof that American Sign Language was a significant language for the deaf made it possible for the deaf to communicate in their own way, and brought the weight off the deaf’s shoulders to talk orally.
Because of William Stokoe, the deaf has developed its own fascinating culture and language. Because of his findings, doors have been opened to make the deaf culture special. Like the Babbidge report. If Stokoe hadn’t proved American sign language was sufficient, who would have? Would the deaf speak orally and feel out of place? We will never know, but still this has made a way for the deaf to feel like they are special and unique.
And now because of him, the hearing are becoming interested in the deaf way of life, and want to be a part of it. Like me; I am so fascinated by the deaf culture, and can’t wait to learn more sign language, and teach sign language to my friends. I already have a friend who has become interested in learning sign language when I had told him I am learning.
Thanks William Stokoe, and thank you to the people of Start ASL for making it possible for me to slowly be a part of the deaf culture.
by Terri (McHenry, IL, USA) | January 22, 2010
Undeniably, William Stokoe had a major impact on Sign Language as we know it today. Mr. Stokoe was instrumental in bringing about legislation within the US government to formally acknowledge sign language as a complete and separate language, as well as a culture, rather than just a subset of any/all other languages. Mr. Stokoe brought these changes about through his research within his graduate studies. He was able to prove conclusively that sign language is a stand alone language and culture with its own history, expressions, idioms and identity, separate from the oral language that is being signed.
Throughout his time as a student at Gallaudet, Mr. Stokoe was a part of the deaf culture and exposed to sign language, however, he was not proficient in sign language himself. According to reports, Mr. Stokoe’s ability to sign was weak at best. His studies had their emphasis on the linguistics and culture that has evolved within the deaf and hard of hearing community.
Mr. Stokoe did not stop at being instrumental in the official recognition of sign language. He also invented a written notation of sign language–a way of being able to type a certain grouping of letters, numbers and symbols to illustrate a sign based on the Roman alphabet, not pictographs. The notations he invented included all of the necessary information for one to properly formulate the signs with each part of the typed/written notation corresponding to handshape, positioning, and other variables within the signed language. Although this notation is not widely used, there is a certain amount of usefulness that one can appreciate in the ability to have a clear and concise method for teaching sign language as well as a continuing standard for others to remember the traditional signs. As with any language, there is a certain amount of change that is taking place within signing in response to newer ideas and changing vocabularies. With Stokoe’s Notation, we will always have the knowledge of the traditions that have been before.
by Audrey Sebastian Gonzalez | April 8, 2017
From the list of various historical figures who played an important role in deaf history, William C. Stokoe, Jr. (1919-2000), an English professor and American linguistic, is my favorite. Foremost, Stokoe, while teaching at Gallaudet University, researched American Sign Language extensively by observing students sign. From this study, an important conclusion was reached: American Sign Language is its own language. His dissertation “Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf” was a key in alternating the perception of this sign language. Consequently, it revolutionized ASL since, previously, it was believed to be a “broken” or “signed” form of English. Stokoe discovered that ASL was a separate language since it was constituted of a distinct syntax and grammar. During the publication of his work in 1960, oralism was the form used for the education of the deaf. This consisted of lip-reading and voicing (using their voice). As such, publishing this discovery was nonetheless accompanied with skepticism from his colleagues and the Gallaudet University administration. Amongst an era of sign language oppression, discovering the uniqueness of this form of communication was, according to me, exemplary and brave. Due to this achievement, American Sign Language has been validated as a true and “official language.” Now, ASL can be a tool for educating deaf people and is even available to hearing people who want to learn it. Also, he invented a written form of ASL referenced as the “Stokoe notation.” For this accomplishment, he received an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet University in 1988. As such, he is now an important and admired character in the Deaf community.
by Brad (MA) | December 15, 2015
My favorite person in Deaf History is William Stokoe. At first, I was going to go with Geronimo Cardano because being the first to do something takes conviction and courage. However, turning preconceived notions on their head, I think, is even harder.
When learning to read, teachers are always urging you to “sound it out”. But if you can’t hear, that’s not an option. I can understand where the Oralism proponents are coming from, not being able to do things as other do them can make it tough to function in society. So the thought that deaf people should be taught to talk is a well-meaning, but ultimately flawed, proposal. Yet that was what the majority of people got behind, until Mr. Stokoe came along.
It takes a strong belief in not only yourself but also in that which you’re advocating for to propose something that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Thankfully. Mr. Stokoe had both. By proving, not just claiming, that sign language is a valid language, he gave deaf (and hard of hearing) people everywhere a chance to succeed. He leveled the playing field. It is far easier for hearing people to learn a deaf language than deaf people to learn a hearing language.
by Sydnie | May 22, 2017
My favorite person from Deaf History is William Stokoe. I liked that he made an effort in proving the significance and importance of Sign Language. Forcing deaf people to learn to communicate through speech and lip reading I feel is doing them a disservice. I realize it was possible for them to do it but not natural. It, to me, is like asking a fish to climb a tree. Forcing someone who is unique to be the same as everyone else has never proved to work. Deaf people need to keep their uniqueness by communicating in the best way for them. I liked that he supported that they had a separate language and that he proved that it was an actual language. I am glad he won the battle. Also, now it allows us in the hearing community to learn another unique language and experience that kind of communication! I also like the use of sign language as it allows deaf people to express themselves in a way that they might not have been able to through Oralism practices. It gives them a sense of meaning and personality. It is also, in my opinion, a better way to communicate with other deaf people. Because neither of them can hear it might be harder to communicate just through lip reading. It may be harder for them to understand one another than it would be for them to talk to someone who is hearing who has spoken their whole lives and can hear themselves speak and form the lip movements more perfectly and more readable to the deaf. I liked William Stokoe because he, although he was hearing, stood up for the deaf people and proved that Sign Language was an actual language and the right way to go! Allowing them to be them, express themselves in the best way they can! I didn’t like the Oralism as it forced the deaf people into communicating in a way that they didn’t necessarily prefer to communicate. No one should be forced to do something they don’t want to do. That is why we have the gift of agency, the freedom to choose. That should not be something that gets taken away from us, deaf or not. I like that he stood up for that right. I like that we have the use of Sign Language now. I like its unique language and way of communicating. It allows you to communicate in a completely new way, allowing you to use other parts of your senses in a different way. Kind of a fun challenge! I imagine a verbal deaf person would be pretty monotone. They might not understand or know how to express through voice, whereas Sign Language allows them to be very expressive. Yes, Oralism would give them the best of both worlds, though all in all I think Sign Language is best because it keeps them unique with their own language. William Stokoe stood up for them, that’s why I like him!
by Anonymous | March 8, 2013
My favorite deaf person would have to be William Stokoe. The reason for this is that if he had not brought the importance of American Sign Language to the public then they might still be oppressed.
I have several deaf family and have watched them communicate in the community and how people perceive them. Since I am older now I see that that has changed as well. We have interpreters for all other languages but this one was the last, it seems, to catch on. It is now offered in some schools as a foreign language. I have seen hearing people make their deaf children learn to communicate without sign language and it is not fair.
My own grandparents had 6 children and 4 being deaf. Back in the 50’s it was different then it is now. They never learned to sign and used the hearing children to communicate with the deaf ones. The kids were sent away to school for the year and then came home on breaks and holidays. I think that would be hard to have to disconnect with your kids. Now if you have a deaf child they encourage you to learn ASL and be involved in their teaching and up-bringing. Then they did not encourage it and in fact they told them to talk with them and make them read lips.
It has come a long way and I hope to see more progress as well. This guy William opened that door for the deaf community. You cannot force a deaf person to learn only by lips it is not natural. I think that people were afraid of the deaf and did not know how to handle them so they made them conform to the hearing world and that is why there was such a battle on how they should be taught. Until they realized that deaf people are the same as hearing but with different challenges.
There are a lot of great people that have made the deaf community better and it is hard to pick just one. However, William Stokoe broke the old way of thinking and convinced people that it is better for them to have ASL. I hope this explains why I picked this person. My true heros are my own family who have overcome so much over time and I am very proud of them.
by Lindsey Mueller | July 3, 2017
Let me begin by stating that, while I understand the importance of keeping chapters at a manageable length I feel this one may have indeed been too short. I appreciate the concise summary of Deaf culture and as a hearing person I must say that I found this chapter absolutely fascinating. It only piqued my curiosity and now I find myself wanting to learn more, so I will probably begin investigating the suggested reading materials at the end of the chapter.
That all being said, I found myself rather inspired by what I read about William Stokoe. Of course, it would be difficult to write 500 words about someone of whom I only have read one short paragraph, but his call to action is quite moving. In an era when Deaf people were being forced out of their comfort zone by conforming to oralism, this man was dedicated enough to research the topic intently. As a hearing person, he was in a position of power, if you will – or at least he was in a respected position in which he could serve as a strong advocate. As a professor at a Deaf college he cared enough to use his position to advance the education of (and the education about) Deaf people. He went above and beyond to prove that ASL was not a mere “translation of English”, which I’m sure was a common belief at the time, but rather that it was a unique language of its own – something that must have been difficult to prove factually (because I also assume that until this time there hadn’t been much research done on ASL yet). I would be quite interested to delve more deeply into his research, his findings, and ultimately his position papers.
This man is credited for advocating for Deaf people in a way that no one else could at the time, and he educated the public about Deaf people in the meantime. Due to his efforts, I would hope that the public was able to shift from seeing ASL as an interpretive dance of sorts to what it is – a functional and beautiful language and a deeply rooted and respectable culture.
As a hearing person I cannot claim to have any experience of my own, however I do feel that the movement to include Total Communication in 1970 was paramount to the progression of the education of the Deaf community. By allowing Deaf people to utilize whatever means of communication by which they personally learn best, this movement allowed for the advancement of Deaf students –no longer would they be limited by the educational standards put onto them by the general public; now they could pursue education by whatever means made the most sense to them personally, thereby giving them the opportunity to tap into their full potential in terms of their own education. Suddenly the Deaf community was ‘allowed’ to become highly educated; no longer would “deaf” mean “uneducated” to the public eye – that stereotype now would have no legitimate basis. This movement (and ultimately the passing of Public Law 94-142) also indicates another important step in Deaf history: that of inclusion. Especially in today’s society, children of all educational backgrounds and preferences are accepted into public education and accommodations are made to allow them to learn via their own preferences – and now the Deaf population is able to do the same.
by KS (USA) | March 8, 2013
One of my favorite people in Deaf history is William Stokoe because when I read about him I felt a sense of relief and triumph that someone in recent history was able to make people, especially those in the academic world, wake up and notice the legitimacy of the Deaf culture and its language.
His love of the language, Deaf culture, and education empowered him to raise ASL to a level of prestige that possibly surpassed what had been, sadly, lost for generations.
It seems as though some of ‘the years the locusts had eaten’ were restored to the Deaf community because of this man’s passion.
by Griselle Merced (Wichita Falls, TX) | April 13, 2010
I have to say that many of them deserve a recognition, but I will say that William Stokoe took it to the next level, fighting for the rights of the Deaf Community letting the hearing world know like other countries have their own language Deaf people have their own and we need to respect that. Instead of molding them to our convenience, we should learn about them and from them.
Why can’t we for once try to work hard and learn their language instead of trying to bring them into our world. We don’t like to work hard, we try to work the least possible. I bet they think the same way, why should we try to please the hearing ones.
My first language is Spanish, I came to the United States 25 years ago. It was hard but the language did not defeat me, to the contrary, everyday is a challenge for me. I took Sign Language as an elective, and I tell you, I am in love and I would like to learn more, but there are not that many Deaf people around for me to socialize with. I would love to be more involved.
And now looking at myself, I can tell you we don’t have anything on them. I love to sign, don’t like to fingerspell, but love to sign, and will continue to learn at all opportunities.
by Bethany (Louisville, KY) | May 21, 2013
My favorite person from Deaf history is William Stokoe, because he proved in his dissertation that ASL is a genuine language with unique syntax and grammar. I am not deaf, but I believe that Deaf people should be allowed to use sign language. Because of that, I would have to say my least favorite person from Deaf history is Alexander Graham Bell. It amazes me how many people wanted to write off sign language as “crude gesture”, which could only convey the simplest of ideas. To me, that is nothing but senseless prejudice. I believe all deaf people should be allowed to use sign, and be taught it as a basic right. Oralism, with no sign, I view as oppressive, and if I’m not mistaken many deaf people agree. I am interested in ASL because I like learning languages, and sign language is something entirely different from a spoken language. I have autism, and sometimes it is easier to use sign. I feel like it uses a different part of my brain. That is another reason I think William Stokoe is interesting, because I have an interest in the study of language. I also admire Heather Whitestone, because I like seeing Deaf people, and people with other disabilities, achieving accomplishments in the world.
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