Australian Aboriginal Deaf People and Aboriginal Sign Language

By Power, Des | Sign Language Studies, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Australian Aboriginal Deaf People and Aboriginal Sign Language


Power, Des, Sign Language Studies


Abstract

Many Australian Aboriginal people use a sign language ("hand talk") that mirrors their local spoken language and is used both in culturally appropriate settings when speech is taboo or counterindicated and for community communication. The characteristics of these languages are described, and early European settlers' reports of deaf Aboriginal people signing are surveyed. The article also considers the use of these sign languages by deaf people in their communities and by deaf children in schools. Suggestions are made as to how the acceptance of signing in Aboriginal culture might help reduce the communicative isolation of Aboriginal deaf people.

European settlement began in Australia in 1788, initially with convicts transported from Britain and their guards. Free settlers, most of whom were administrators, farmers, and shopkeepers, began arriving in the early 1800s, and slow expansion took place from the original settlement at Port Jackson (modern-day Sydney) (Kelly 1978).

The Aboriginal1 people of Australia are believed to have come from Asia by sea and land forty to fifty thousand years ago, possibly even earlier.2 They lived all over Australia, even in the harsh desert areas. At the time of European settlement, tribal groups were speaking approximately 250 languages, only about 20 of which are still being spoken by sufficient numbers of people to be judged viable (Tsunoda 2005). Many of these languages had a parallel sign language, which was used when speech was taboo, counterindicated, or difficult to use (e.g., by women in times of mourning, during initiations, while hunting, and over longer distances where speech could not be heard; Jassar and Hunter 2006; J. Green 2009), as well as for occasional communication in communities, especially among women. While the vocabulary and syntax of the sign language reflected those of the accompanying spoken language, there must have been some signs in common. For instance, Philip Roberts (whose tribal name was Waipuldanya) , an Alawa man from the Roper River in the Northern Territory, was able to converse with strangers whose language he did not speak. He used "their expressive finger-talk which is common to all tribes. . . . Finger talk is also constant among men who speak the same tongue. It not only saves unnecessary speech but has the added advantage that evil spirits cannot hear it" (Lockwood 1962, 121). Why the evil spirits could not see signing is not mentioned.

Early Reports

Reports of sign language use among Aboriginal people surfaced as early as the last quarter of the nineteenth century. One of the early reports notes:

the wonderful state of perfection to which the gesture language has attained in the [Warramunga (a tribe near the Warlpiri in the Central Desert of the Nordiern Territory)]. . . . [The women] talk away in camp as fluendy with their fingers as they can with their tongues, even those who are not under the ban of silence use the gesture language for choice and most wonderful of all the little children of 6 or 7 years of age evidently understand their mothers. (Spencer and Gillen (1899/1968, 141)

Although there are no records, one may presume that there were deaf people among the Aboriginal Australians prior to European setdement and that they used local signs in those early days. A few mentions of "deaf and dumb" Aboriginal people are found in early colonial documents.

The noted explorer Edward Eyre reported the following:

Deaf and dumb persons are not often found among the Aborigines, but I have met with instances of this kind. One of die most intelligent natives I ever met with, was a deaf and dumb youth at the Wimmera [in western Victoria; a state in southeastern Australia] . From this poor boy, I could more readily and intelligibly obtain by signs a description of the country, its character, and localities, than from any native I ever met with, whose language I was at the time quite unacquainted with, (ca. …

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