University of Edinburgh

Newsletter No 10: August 2000

In Memoriam: Bill Stokoe, 1919 - 2000

by Mary Brennan

Some time in 1974, scouring Moray House library for information about Deaf people and sign language, I came across a journal called Sign Language Studies. Here for the first time, I read articles which either took for granted that sign languages were full human languages or provided rich evidence to support such a case. I can still remember the sense of excitement and discovery. The editor of that journal was the pioneer of sign language research, William C Stokoe, who died in April after a lifetime of bringing both genuine scholarship and real hope to the world of Deaf people.

In 1960, Bill Stokoe produced a monograph entitled Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf published by the University of Buffalo as Occasional Paper 8. Three years earlier, Noam Chomsky had produced a monograph called Syntactic Structures in Janua linguarum. Series minor, no. 4. Both books might seem remote - relevant only to a narrow specialist audience - yet both created linguistic revolutions which reverberate into the new millennium. Perhaps it took a little longer for the sign language revolution to take hold, but its impact can be felt not just in academic circles but in the everyday lives of Deaf people. Nothing has given Deaf people more pride and self-esteem than the recognition that sign languages are fully-fledged, highly complex linguistic systems which are a unique expression of Deaf life and culture. Rather than being dismissed as "merely pictorial" or "dishuman" (both terms in use at the time of Stokoe's early work), linguists across the world not only recognise them as fully linguistic, but as providing an important resource for understanding the true nature of human language.

Bill Stokoe was never the kind of academic linguist who sat in his ivory tower, ignoring the realities of Deaf life. He saw the connection between his work on signed language and the everyday experiences of Deaf people. He was ready to speak out against what he saw as the inherent injustice of rejecting sign languages, particularly within education.

My own first meeting with Bill came in the mid-1970s. The British Deaf Association had invited Bill and a number of other sign language researchers to a seminar in Northern Counties School for the Deaf, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Martin Colville and I had just begun our early attempts at analysing some British Sign Language. We gave a presentation, rather nervously making use of the transcription system, known as the Stokoe Notation System, which Bill himself had devised. The encouragement Bill gave us at that time, when the study of sign language seemed bizarre to some, was an enormous boost. We soon learned that it was also absolutely typical.

Towards the end of 1999, I had an email from an American colleague telling me of the gravity of Bill's illness. I asked that colleague to remind Bill of the affection that I and so many others here in the UK had for him. Within a matter of hours, I had a direct response from Bill: as he said, his computer was only a few feet away from his hospice bed. Over the weeks that followed I was privileged to be able to take part in e-mail conversations with him, in which he shared his insights about sign language, as well as his love of Scotland.

There are many images that I will retain of Bill Stokoe: delighting and inspiring his audience at the Scottish Workshop for the Deaf in the 1970s; sitting hand in hand with his wife Ruth (then experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer's) at a conference in the 1980s; questioning the new orthodoxies within linguistics in the mid-1990s and towards the end of that decade, providing an eloquent, poetic account of his favourite malt whisky.

There is still plenty of work to be done, not least here in Scotland, to ensure that Deaf people are able to access education, justice, social service, indeed every aspect of their lives, in their preferred language. It would be a wonderful tribute to Bill Stokoe if the sign linguistic rights of Deaf people could be enshrined in Scottish legislation within the new Scottish Parliament.

Mary Brennan, Senior Lecturer in Deaf Education