Providence Island Sign Language

William Washabaugh (1991)

The Providence Island Laboratory
The purpose of this essay is to consider a naturally occurring laboratory (1) that is located on an isolated Caribbean island. From this natural lab we will learn about some aspects of language development which no other lab reveals. Specifically, we will find ourselves confronted with a group of people who balk at language acquisition. By considering their situation more closely, we will discover that language acquisition is not the automatic engine that it is often suggested to be. Rather its operations are closely tuned to prevailing social conditions.

Isla Providencia, Colombia is a small island society, and, from the point of view discussed above, it is something more, an isolated laboratory where some major physical and behavioral hypotheses are being invented, even as we speak. Historically, Providence Island --as the inhabitants call it-- played a major role in volatile seventeenth-century international politics and intrigue. Because of its strategic location in the Western Caribbean, it was put to service as a way station for British and French pirates who preyed on the Spanish ships that passed en route from Central America. But when King Sugar came to dominate Caribbean activity in the eighteenth century, the focus of economic and political activity shifted eastward to the plantation islands. And Providence islanders were left to muddle along with their subsistence practices, largely centered around fishing. While the rest of the West Indies was buzzing with trade and travel, nobody much bothered with Providence. Few people came to the island and few people left. For many decades now, the population of this beautiful fifteen square mile island has remained about 2500 persons.

The Deaf Population
A hundred years of isolation came and went. And during this time inbreeding was occurring in this small island population; the islanders had few others to mate with besides their neighbors. As a result, physical changes began to occur even as they occurred on other small island societies like Grand Cayman B.W.I. and Martha's Vineyard. One major physical change which has marked all these isolated island societies was a dramatic increase in the rate of profound congenital deafness.

This increase in the frequency of deafness was not, so far as we can see, a fortunate and beneficial "hypothesis" (1) for survival. Deafness does nothing to assure the survival of the deaf or of anybody else. If anything, deafness makes survival more difficult. But one thing that the increase of deafness did do was to stimulate the development of second-order hypotheses, that is, hypotheses which accommodated islanders to the condition of deafness. In these natural island laboratories, the condition of deafness, threatening as it was, prompted the invention of adaptive behaviors which enabled deaf persons to survive and even flourish in the midst of hearing islanders.

The major adaptive behavior, a "hypothesis" of sorts, was the development of a Sign language to facilitate communication. This island Sign language is unlike most of the Sign languages that linguists have studied, including American Sign Language (also known as ASL or Ameslan). It is distinctive partly because it was, and continues to be, relatively uninfluenced by politicians or educators.

ASL and the Sign languages of other large industrial societies have been thoroughly worked over by people, mostly hearing people, who think that they know what is good for the Deaf. As a result, these languages have undergone drastic transformations during the relatively short period of time for which we have records about them. And because of those drastic transformations, scholars have a difficult time fathoming the specific conditions and constraints which bore on those Sign languages at their moments of creation -- essays on the origin and evolution of American Sign language are rife but speculative. Ignorant of the conditions and constraints which were present at the creation of Sign languages, scholars are therefore also unable to say what the earliest progenitors of modern Sign languages were like. Moreover, they cannot tell whether those early Sign languages were beneficial "hypotheses" and "true" adaptations or not.

However, on Providence Island we can observe a natural laboratory where Sign language invention and testing are still taking place. And in this natural laboratory of Sign, we can discover some critical features of language development which have been overlooked by linguists.

The deafness that occurs on Providence Island is a profound deafness that runs in families. In Southwest Bay, Sylvia and Florene are deaf siblings who live but a stone's throw away from their mother's three deaf siblings. In Old Town, three elderly deaf persons live together, and there are two more live together in Lazy Hill, and two more in Rocky Point. The deaf persons who presently live on the island were preceded by deaf persons in the past who hammered out the lineaments of their Sign language. In some places, deaf signers stretching back three generations have been in contact with one another, passing on their signing tradition. In Southwest Bay, for example, deaf Billy and his cousin appeared first, and they probably learned to sign from deaf persons elsewhere on the island.

Wherever they acquired their signs, one thing is clear: they honed their signing into a remarkably effective communication system. Billy is an energetic and fluid signer. His cousin was reputed to have been as clear a signer as ever lived on the island. These two cousins not only interacted with one another in Southwest Bay, they paved the way for John, Lawrence, and Bress in the next generation. They were cousins and village mates to these three. and they certainly contributed to their socialization. Now another twenty years later, the sequence is repeated as John, Lawrence, and Bress serve as models for their sister's children. Their sister Rita is a hearing woman, but, having been raised with John, Lawrence, and Bress, she is a near-native signer and was well prepared to deal with the situation when two of her own children, Sylvia and Florene, were born deaf. Thus, three generations of persons in Southwest Bay form an unbroken tradition - in which signing is built and developed. None of these deaf on Providence have been schooled. None know how to read and write.

None know fingerspelling. None, so far as I can tell, are or have ever been taught how to communicate by the hearing. Never have I seen a hearing person even advise a deaf person, not even little Florene on how to communicate. Yet these deaf persons sign, and they sign fluidly and gracefully with each other and with the hearing.

Providence Island Sign Language
Early on in my investigations of Providence Island Sign Language, I tried to compile a dictionary of signs. But this proved to be a very frustrating task. The major obstacle was variation. Every time I thought I had caught a sign and was ready to pin it into my dictionary, like a collector of butterflies, I would turn around to see either a different version of that sign or some slightly different sign. But I never knew which. For example, Sylvia often signed MAN with an index finger brushed laterally across her upper lip. But on some occasions she would simply twist her fist at the side of her mouth. I could not decide whether this latter twisted fist was the same sign as the former or a different one. Both signs seem to represent the mustache of a man, so one might suppose them to be related. But the hand formation, the movement and the place of the signing are all quite different. Sylvia uses the two both versions, sometimes separately, sometimes conjoined. As as result, it is difficult to tell whether her MAN-1 and her MAN-2 are related as English "erasure" and "rasure," which have a common foundation, or like English "outrage" and "rage," which have quite distinct foundations, Similarly, MANGO is signed by some folks with a squeezing fist held directly in front of the mouth, by others with a palm-inward fist moving up and down in front of the mouth, and by still others with a fist rubbing up and down on the cheek. (In the West Indies, mangoes are eaten by sucking the sweet juice through a hole bitten in one end.) What, I wondered, should be entered into my dictionary? How could I decide whether the different versions of MANGO were the same sign produced with different "accents" or whether they were different signs altogether?

If you were learning a foreign language, you would know how to solve this problem. You would ask a native speaker whether MANGO-1 and MANGO-2 meant the same thing or different things. Simple! But I could not ask that question of the deaf on Provi because PSL has no sign MEANING. For that matter it has no sign SIGN, no signs WORD, NAME, SENTENCE, no signs at all that can be used for communicating about signing. I could not ask deaf people to tell me if two signs meant different things. I could not ask what such-and-such a sign meant. I could not ask how one signs such-and-such. I was unable to elicit judgments of the well-formedness of signed utterances.

This language was looking curiouser and curioser and your linguist was becoming more and more confused.

Some of this confusing variation was due to the multiple channels used in signing. While the history of ASL indicates a steady trend to concentrate information in the hands, face, and upper body, Providence signers used a much larger space, and a wide variety of extra-manual devices. SMOKE, for example, was sometimes signed with a dramatic intake of air through pursed lips, but sometimes with hands rising in front of the chest. FLOWERS involved a the tongue visibly moving from one side of the mouth to the other two or three times while hands either touch each other or diverge to the sides of the signer's body.. WATER was sometimes signed with fingers to the lips of the head tilting backwards, but sometimes with hands outstretch while lips are pursed.. Such uses of breathing, tongue-movement, and head-movement in signs were evident, albeit sparingly, in early ASL, but such signs have gradually been replaced by hand movements. Their continued used in Providence Island is problematic just in the sense that a sign-reader cannot easily know what the limits and boundaries of breathing or head movement might be, and therefore when differential meanings are in play.

To this date I have not been able to resolve enough of these mysteries of variation to allow me to move forward with the dictionary of Sign language. Perhaps, I reckoned, the deaf command a language that is curious insofar as it lacks all means to sign about signing. Perhaps they alone know how to sign and an outsider like myself could learn only by total immersion over a long period of time. On this assumption. I decided to check and be sure that signers understand one another as surely and clearly as they seem to. What kind of a language could it be if communicators cannot understand one another?

Ethnography of Signing
I spent many hours just sitting and watching the deaf communicate with one another and with the hearing. I became part of the woodwork in Rita's house in Southwest Bay where Sylvia and Florene worked and played with their hearing siblings and with Rita, their mother, and her deaf siblings. And the conclusion I came to, without a shred of doubt. was that the deaf are sure, clear and fluid signers. Their communicative skills are highly polished. Moreover, I concluded that their hearing kinsmen, like Sylvia's mother Rita, were near native signers who could advise me about Providence Island Sign in ways that the deaf, who lacked a metalanguage could not.
However, some tests of this conclusion proved quite surprising. I elicited signed descriptions of puppet actions from three deaf signers. I worked puppets in front of each deaf person, and he or she signed a description of the puppet actions to his or her hearing comrade. I was shocked to see that the rate of success for hearing interpretations of deaf utterances in this test was less than 50%.

Admittedly the whole procedure of describing and then interpreting puppet actions must have struck both the deaf and the hearing as strange, and the strangeness might account for some of the errors. However, I gave all the subjects, both deaf and hearing, ample opportunity to accustom themselves to the procedures before these data were recorded. I coached them when they erred, and walked them through signing and interpreting repeatedly until they seemed comfortable. Sylvia and her hearing sister were particularly well practiced in this task by the time I recorded their performance, They had worked through different schedules of puppet actions on previous occasions, and in many ways, helped me through the preliminary phases of constructing the test. Accordingly, the performance of Sylvia and her sister are particularly worthy of close consideration. Sylvia is, as noted above. the eldest of two deaf girls in her family, and her mother is sister to three deaf persons who live nearby. On this count, Sylvia has had more contact with more signing models than any other deaf person on the island, She is both intellectually quite bright and communicatively as fluent as any signer on the island. Sylvia's hearing sister is the oldest hearing child in the household. She is second in command, so to speak, and is in constant contact with Sylvia as the two go about cooking, cleaning, and caring for the little ones. Moreover, Sylvia's sister is very closely attached to dear Florene and when she not signing to Sylvia about household affairs, she is playing with Florene. In short, Sylvia's sister is an extraordinarily competent signer and as frequent a communicator with Sylvia as any other islander bar none. In light of these facts, the failure of Sylvia's hearing sister to interpret Sylvia's signed descriptions of doll actions with less than a 50% success rate is remarkable.

SL Acquisition Revisited
You can surely appreciate my perplexity as I digested these findings. Research on American Sign Language and on all spoken languages suggests that people, who are not shut out of social interaction, invariably build a complete language by failing back on their own innate resources. However, there have been almost no naturally occurring circumstances--and only the Egyptian Pharoah Psamtik had the audacity to try to engineer such circumstances-- which test this expectation. The natural laboratory of Providence Island set up just those very circumstances, circumstances that is, where deaf children would have to build their own language by failing back on innate resources. However, the Sign language which has been created by the deaf islanders seemed not bear out the finding of mainline research. Contrary to expectations, Providence Island signs are so variable that they cannot, except by Procrustean lexicography, be represented in a dictionary. Their utterances are so ambiguous that not even family members could interpret signed utterances in our test situation. And last, but not least in significance, this sign language lacks metalinguistic devices for communicating about sign itself -- there is no sign for "sign." In all communicative circumstances except those in which the hearing might have foreknowledge of the topics or deaf utterances, the hearing are unable to interpret the signs of the deaf. Given these facts, I have concluded that Providence Island Sign Language could be called a mature language only if the word language is given a more than generous interpretation. This conclusion does not sit well with me. It's a very disturbing conclusion, and my discomfort in coming to it prompts me to offer the following suggestions about language acquisition first among the deaf of Providence island, and then amongst human beings in general.

The deaf of Providence lack a complete and mature language, as we conventionally define the notion of "a language." But they lack a language not because their minds have failed them, or because they have no innate mental blueprints or mental language faculties They lack a language because they are caught in strange social relationships with the hearing, and the key to appreciating the unusual hypothesis of this natural language laboratory of Providence Island lies in understanding the strangeness of these strange social relationships of deaf to hearing.

The problem, generally speaking, is that the hearing are overly solicitous The deaf of Providence island never push themselves to construct truly linguistic expressions to communicate with one another because the hearing who deal with them are too loving, too generous, too watchful, and too willing to compensate for their lapses and defaults. When the deaf communicate with the hearing, the hearing do all the labor of disambiguating utterances. And when the deaf communicate with one another, they have too little invested in one another and, as a result, they do not take the trouble to sign unambiguously.

Let me illustrate these generalizations with a few events from the lives of Providence Island deaf persons. First, the deaf enter into interactions with the hearing energetically and persistently. So enthusiastic are the deaf, when interact with the bearings that they sometimes overwhelm the hearing flooding them with more signing than the hearing can handle. I observed a hearing friend try to intervene in Lawrence's signing to ask a question of him, but Lawrence was on a roll and not to be slowed down. The chap finally reached out and physically stilled Lawrence's hands and posed his question. That is what I mean by deaf enthusiasm for interaction with the hear The deaf enter into interaction with the hearing enthusiastically, but unfortunately, they do so from an unequal standing. As competent as the deaf may be, the hearing treat them as if they were children. As children, the deaf can be ignored if the hearing wish. And if they are not ignored, they should be helped. Either way the deaf are defrauded of equal standing with the hearing and also of the opportunity to build a mature Sign language. Since the deaf are regarded by the hearing as children, they are excluded from many adult interactions. It is more the rule than the exception that when adults gather together for a conversation with a deaf person present no attempt is made to draw the deaf person signs. Hours of light banter or weighty debate can pass and a deaf person will sit quietly watching the movements, but missing the stuff of the occasion.

The deaf, for themselves, generally do not interrupt or beg for a clue as to the goings on, for they have been brought up to conspire in their own infantilization. I used to watch Lawrence interacting with his hearing peers on the beach. On the beach is where Lawrence likes to be, and young "mannish" men are the people he likes to be with. But too regularly Lawrence would initiate an interaction, only to find that no one would respond. Lawrence's signs would simply wilt into stillness. His face was all eagerness when he held someone's eyes while he signed, but he did not show any symptoms of frustration when, as more frequently happened, he was ignored. He simply stayed and waited and tried again. Lawrence seems to have accommodated to the disattentions of the hearing, but at a frightful cost. Sometimes the disattentions of the deaf by the hearing are quite subtle. That is, the hearing behave toward the deaf as if they were attending and comprehending, but the reality is that they are simply nodding their way through an interaction with the deaf. I myself have made use of a strategy like this, but I passed if off as a polite ploy by a novice signer. However, I observed this same nodding behavior being used by friends and even by the family of deaf people. For example, one day I happened on Bress as she was telling her mother about an argument which had occurred earlier that day. Bress's mother pursued the issue asking who was fighting and what they were fighting about. But her pursuit was futile for Bress was already enthusiastically spinning out the narrative line. So Bress's mother began to nod her way through the remainder of the conversation, turning at least half of her attention back to the coconuts she was 'grating and leaving Bress with only some occasional head nods. When Bress finished her narrative, the interaction ended with no more questions. She left, and her mother turned to me and said that she sometimes has to let Bress sign on even though she does not understand. If the hearing don't ignore the deaf, they help them. And the consequences of the paternalistic practices of "helping" the deaf are just as devastating as the consequences of ignoring the deaf. The hearing help the deaf by interpreting their utterances before the deaf even form their signs. And the hearing can do that because on Providence there everyone knows everything about everyone else. The deaf can hardly shake a finger before hearing persons are ready with an accurate interpretation of the finger and all signs I that are to follow. The hearing know the context of signing so well, that even the slighted signed clue is all they need for a complete and accurate interpretation.

Partly because deaf-hearing interaction is focal, deaf-deaf interaction is overshadowed. The deaf have no serious moral investment in other deaf persons. There is certainly no deaf community on Providence like the deaf community in the U.S. Nor is there any clear sense of comraderie among the deaf or any desire evidenced amongst them to be with one another. On the contrary, everything I have seen tells me that deaf persons prefer to be with the hearing rather than with other deaf persons. One consequence of this preference, is that their communications with one another are marred and fractured.

These facts about deaf-deaf and deaf-hearing interaction have led me to the admittedly controversial conclusion that the deaf of Providence have not yet gotten the chance to construct a mature language. They are perfectly capable of constructing a Sign language, but they are not pushed to that task by either the hearing or the deaf. Hence their language is underdeveloped. The deaf islanders of Providence Island continue to struggle, day in and day out, with the task of communicating. And isolated as they are, their struggles continue to be rich in inventive hypotheses, though they hardly think of them as such.'

From a social scientist's point of view the naturally occurring hypotheses of these deaf islanders are interesting because they force us to rethink the self-consciously produced hypotheses produced in the squeaky clean laboratories of linguistic an sociological theory. Mainline theory says that people like deaf islanders in the West Indies should be creating mature languages rather quickly because language construction is primarily a matter of brain work, not social work. But the natural laboratory of Providence tells us something different. It says that language construction proceeds only under specific social conditions. And if those social conditions are not met, all the brain work in the world will not produce a language. The natural language laboratory of Providence Island tells us that a distinctive languages arises amongst people who regard themselves as both competent and significant.

1. Laboratories are places for hammering out hypotheses, for putting them to the test, and so for producing our knowledge of the world. Often enough, such labs sport squeaky clean floors, white coats, test tubes and that no-so- pleasant odor of experiments in progress. But not always. Nature has its own laboratories which, though they might seem unkempt and disheveled, produce clearer and surer knowledges than any other labs we know. In order to appreciate these natural laboratories, we will have to adjust our understanding of "knowledge" so as to be able to see that nature's labs are oriented towards the same goal as our familiar experimental laboratories. I suggest that "knowledge," most generally, is whatever stuff enables "knowers" to survive. We commonly think of that stuff as ideas. For example, ideas about electronics can be understood to be hypotheses which are currently showing themselves to be true insofar as they enhance our ability to survive. Modern physics, modern chemistry, even modern anthropology are ensembles of true ideas ... true, that is, insofar as those ideas help to promote human survival. By contrast, a "false" hypothesis, like the idea that arsenic is good food, is ultimately false only because it inhibits survival.

Having outlined this notion of true knowledge as survival-enhancement, let us consider the possibility that true knowledge can sometimes be physical rather than ideational. Take the giraffe's long neck, for example. Think of it as hypothesis which has been undergoing testing for quite a few hundred thousand years. The testing proceeds by way of natural selection and its outcome is nothing less than the demonstration of the "truth" of the giraffe's long neck, that is, a demonstration that the long., neck really does help giraffes to survive. Similarly, consider a duckling's imprinting behavior. Imprinting is a genetically fixed behavioral "hypothesis" which seems to be showing itself to be "true" because it enables a species 'to survive.

In sum, physical traits and behaviors, as well as ideas, can be "knowledges" (though it will take some practice to feel comfortable saying that a giraffe's neck is a hypothesis) and such "knowledges" are hammered out in nature and not just in experimental laboratories. Every bit of knowledge, whether ideational, behavioral, or physical, must go through two stages before it can be honored with the label "knowledge." First, it must be produced by design (invention) or by chance (mutation). Second, it must be tested. Let us consider these two stages a bit more closely.

When a bit of knowledge is advanced but not yet tested, it is called a hypothesis. For example, in the first millennium of stretch giraffes, their necks were a hypothesis for survival, an experiment for survival in an environment with high- standing vegetation. Similarly, when first invented, asbestos protective gear was a hypothesis for survival an environment of extreme heat.

Once produced, those hypotheses were then tested. And such testing always involves repeated trials over a very long time. A long testing period is needed partly to prove that the conditions which warrant the hypothesis are stable and not likely to disappear abrupt and partly to prove that the hypothesis itself does not contain undesirable effects. Towards the later stages of the longer period of testing, one can draw some tentative conclusions-- always tentative--about the truth of the hypothesis. In our examples, nature's protracted testing has shown that the giraffe's neck is "true knowledge" provided, of course, that high-standing vegetation persists. On the other hand, the "hypothesis" of asbestos protective gear has shown itself to be "false," because, though it protects against heat, it has lethal side effects that went unnoticed for some time. Nature's laboratories include facilities for inventing hypotheses as well as for testing them. And while nature's testing labs tend to be huge, densely populated groups in which hypotheses, whether they be ideas, behaviors or physical traits, are tried and retried over millions of 'years, the inventing labs tend to be small. Specifically, nature's inventing labs usually consist of small groups in isolated locations where "mutations chance to appear.