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Laurent Clerc: Sign Language Becomes Ugly?

I was recently reading the article “Laurent Clerc: A Complex and Conflicted Deaf Man in America" by Kurz and Hlibok. In this article they covered the subject of Laurent’s struggle with the newly evolving ASL. Laurent had been taught...

“methodical signs, that is, English-order signing, as he believed it was the only way for students to learn reading and writing.” “Though he was the originator of the modified French Sign Laurent, Clerc struggled with the natural evolution of this language. He did not realize that languages must evolve if they are to survive, all he wanted was for everyone to use the same language.”

It is fascinating that such a bright and educated person might still have this achilles heel when it comes to the need for language to evolve by its users. Especially when he helped create the new social milieu in which his students were to start changing ASL and evolve it away from Laurent’s native language.

How did Laurent feel about it later in life? Well, we have an idea from a deaf missionary and ex-student of his, Job Turner. In a letter from 1895, Mr. Turner describes to Laurent’s son, Francis Clerc...

“About two years before his demise, I met him in Brattleboro, Vt. There was a Vermont deaf-mute reunion there…Soon after dinner at our hotel, he asked me to take a walk with him back to the hotel which I said I would do. When we had walked two or three blocks he stopped me telling me that he wished to tell me something. He said with some tears in his eyes that the graceful signs which he and Gallaudet had brought from France to Hartford, were being degenerated or changed into other ugly signs. Then he wanted me to take him back to the hotel which I accordingly did. It was grief that made him too weak to step any further. While we were winding our way to the hotel, he shook his head several times to show sorrow. He sat down in a chair the very moment I had taken off his overcoat. I wish he had prepared his autobiography long before God called him away among us.”

This story kinda makes me sad. To think of this old man walking down the streets of Brattleboro. Oh, I lived in Brattleboro for 20 years and now wonder where he stayed and feel it is way cool that I may have walked his same route many times, years later of course.

But there you have it. One can change the world by bringing a language but is not in control of where it goes. An important lesson about sharing I suppose.


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