Littell's Living Age/Volume 146/Issue 1884/Sign-Language among the American Indians

Littell's Living Age  (1880) 
Volume 146, Issue 1835 : Sign-Language among the American Indians[1], by A. H. Sayce

Originally published in Nature.

Under this modest title another of those valuable contributions, which we owe to the Smithsonian Institution, has been made to science. Researches into the ethnography of the North American Indians have been going on for the last eleven years under the superintendence of Mr. J. N. Powell, and a series of compact and beautifully printed monographs has lately been started for the purpose of aiding and directing them. The monograph just issued forms the second of the series hitherto published, and in spite of its title is full of new and interesting matter. It will be appreciated not only by those who are actually engaged in observing the life and manners of barbarous tribes, but also by every student of language and anthropology.

The evidence that has been accumulating for some time past makes it probable that the most important part of language, its grammatical machinery, originated in gestures and signs. These were the means whereby sense and meaning were imported into spoken words. As Col. Mallery remarks: "A child employs intelligent gestures long in advance of speech, although very early and persistent attempts are made to give it instruction in the latter but none in the former; it learns language only through the medium of signs; and long after familiarity with speech, consults the gestures and facial expressions of its parents and nurses as if to translate or explain their words." An examination of the sign language or languages of mankind consequently becomes of high importance, and it is strange that no thorough and scientific attempt to undertake it has hitherto been made. Leibnitz indeed, with the instinct of genius, pointed out the need and importance of such an investigation (in his "Collectanea Etymologica," ch. 9), but his words met with no response. It is therefore all the more satisfactory to find that the subject has at last been taken up in America, where special opportunities still exist for collecting materials, notwithstanding the rapid decrease in the native population that seems to have been going on of late years. North America has always been the country where a language of signs was pre-eminently in vogue. Col. Mallery says with justice that "the words of an Indian tongue, being synthetic or undifferentiated parts of speech, are in this respect strictly analogous to the gesture elements which enter into a sign-language." Just as a single idea or mental picture is represented by a connected group of individual gestures, so to it is expressed in the polysynthetic speech of the Red Indian by a group of individual syllables which form but one word.

The first question we have to ask ourselves is whether sign-languages are the same all over the world, whether each idea or group of ideas has a fixed and natural gesture or sign corresponding to everywhere. To this question the researches made among the American Indians furnish a conclusive reply. "The alleged existence of one universal and absolute sign-language is, in its terms of general assertion, one of the many popular errors prevailing about our aborigines." Many signs are purely conventional, while many ideas or objects may be denoted by more than one sign. The signs used by the different Indian tribes to indicate the same ideas by no means agree together nor do they always agree, so far as I know, with the signs employed for the same ideas in the Old World, whether by savages or by deaf-mutes. The curious language of signs employed in monasteries where the rule of silence was strictly observed, which is given by Leibnitz, if compared with the lists of signs furnished by American explorers, is a good example of the fact.

At the same time no signs can be so arbitrary and conventional as spoken words, nor can an idea be expressed by so many different signs as it can be by different sounds. Col. Mallery observes that "further evidence of the unconscious survival of gesture-language is afforded by the ready and involuntary response made in signs to signs when a man with the speech and habits of civilization is brought into close contact with Indians or deaf-mutes. Without having ever seen or made one of their signs, he will soon not only catch the meaning of theirs, but produce his own, which they will likewise comprehend, the power seemingly remaining latent in him until called forth by necessity. The signs used by uninstructed congenital deaf-mutes and the facial expressions and gestures of the congenitally blind also present considerations under the heads of 'heredity' and 'atavism,' of some weight when the subjects are descended from and dwell among people who had disused gestures for generations, but of less consequence in cases such as that mentioned by Cardinal Wiseman of an Italian blind man who, curiously enough, used the precise signs made by his neighbors."

But care must be taken to distinguish between two things which are frequently confused together. Gestures and signs are wholly different, gestures being natural signs more or less conventional. A gesticulation is a gesture which has become a sign, and the nearer signs approach to gesticulations the more readily and instinctively they will be understood.

Those who wish to know what the Indian sign-language is will find plenty of interesting and suggestive examples in Col. Mallery’s "Introduction." He has added a list of his authorities as well as a speech in signs addressed by a medicine-man of the Wichitas to Mr. A. J. Holt, and a story in signs told by Natshes, the Bah-Ute chief, to Dr. W. J. Hoffman. These curious specimens of sign-language will show what it is more effectually than any description could do, and will justify the analysis and classification of the signs proposed by Col. Mallery.

In conclusion, aid and suggestions are asked from all interested in the subject, or who are in actual contact with savage and barbarous tribes. A list of words is appended for which the corresponding signs are wanted, those of chief importance being marked by an asterisk. We hope that the ethnographical department of the Smithsonian Institution will meet with all the assistance in this undertaking to which it is entitled. There must be many observers among the uncivilized races of the Old World or in schools for deaf-mutes who have many facts of interest and value to contribute. It is only when these facts haye all been gathered in that it will be possible to reconstruct that primitive speech of mankind which preceded articulate utterance, which formed the bridge to spoken language, and expressed the earliest thought of the human race.


  1. Introduction to the Study of Sign-Language among the North American Indians, as Illustrating the Gesture-Speech of Mankind. By Garrick Mallery. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1933, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.