Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) was a village sign language that was used widely on the island of Martha’s Vineyard from the early 18th century, right up until 1952. What made this sign language remarkable is that it was used by both deaf and hearing people, meaning for the deaf people of Martha’s Vineyard, deafness was not a barrier to social participation, as it often is in wider society.
The language was able to thrive due to the unusually high percentage of deaf islanders. In 1854, when the islands deaf population peaked, one in every 155 people were deaf. To put this in perspective, the United States national average at the time was one deaf person in every 5,730 people! The highest concentration of deaf people in Martha’s Vineyard was in the town of Chilmark, where 1 in 25 inhabitants
From the late 18th to early 20th century, virtually everybody on Martha’s Vineyard possessed some degree of fluency in the language. The deaf in Martha’s Vineyard were treated no differently than the hearing community, worked jobs, attended island events and participated fully in the community. This was in contrast with other deaf communities around the world, which are, more often than not, isolated from the general population. Martha’s Vineyard is remarkable as the deaf community were totally integrated with the rest of the population.
MVSL was used by deaf and hearing alike, spoken and taught to hearing children in their first years of life, to enable them to communicate with the many deaf children they would encounter in school, with lip movement, hand gestures, mannerisms and facial expressions all being studied. Hearing people often still used sign language even when there were no deaf people present. MVSL was not reserved solely for the use of the deaf, it was part of the culture of the island, used by all of its inhabitants. For example, hearing children would sign behind their teachers back, farmers would sign to their children across a wide field, and Fishermen would sign to each other from their boats across the water where the spoken word would not carry.
Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language declined after the opening of the American School for the Deaf. Although students from Martha’s Vineyard actually helped influence the creation of American sign language with contributions from MVSL, when they returned home, they brought ASL usage back with them, and MVSL faded. In addition, as transportation became easier in the 19th century, hearing people emigrated to Martha’s Vineyard, and brought with them genetic diversity, meaning hereditary deafness was no longer commonplace.
The last person born into the islands sign language tradition, as well as the islands hereditary deafness, was Katie West, who died in 1952. However, as recently as the 1980s, some elderly residents were able to recall some MVSL, when research into the language began. When researcher Oliver Sacks visited the island, he noticed that a group of elderly islanders who were talking together dropped briefly into sign language, then back into speech. Sadly, today Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language is classified as extinct, despite the rescue efforts of many linguists. MVSL was never meant to be a language that should be written down, so no records survive, which makes the task of preserving it almost impossible.