“A mime dictionary for the deaf”. We teach sign language #24

How were sign language dictionaries created at a time when television and movies were not yet known? Natalia Sobótka talks about the dictionary of Polish sign language from the 19th century.

Hey! When we think of language, one of of our associations is a dictionary. Dictionary, or collection of linguistic expressions belonging to one or more languages. In other words, it is a book (or website). Where we can check the correct spelling of a given word and its explanation. And have you ever wondered, Is there a dictionary of of Polish sign language?

Sign language dictionary in the 19th century

It is known that since sign language is a visual-spatial language, the best way to accurately to describe a sign is to make a … video recording of it. Now, thanks to technological solutions, this is not such a difficult task. However, let’s go back in time. Was it possible to create a dictionary Polish sign language in the 19th century? It turns out that it was.

The oldest dictionary of Polish sign language is: “A mimic dictionary for the deaf and those in contact with them”, by Rev. Jozef Hollak and Rev. Teofil Jagodzinski in 1879. Both authors worked at the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb at the Three Crosses Square in Warsaw. The dictionary was directed to teachers of the deaf. See that back in the 19th century hearing people knew, That the best method of communication with deaf people is communication in sign language. As can be seen from the preface of the same Dictionary -. the goal was to unify sign language, That is, the aim was to make everyone call a given thing was called using the same sign.

Examples of sign descriptions

Now let’s see what the example entry from the Dictionary:

“To plow. Arranging the hands to hold the plow, He advances with them, Pretending to shake the socha or plow to clear them from the ground, after finishing the skimmer while plowing”

Well — you can’t deny the authors that, That they tried to accurately describe the the sign, but as you can see for yourself – even the most accurate description in the phonic language will not reflect the video recording of the sign. Moreover, many of the signs were simply a reference to another, for example:

“To achieve — as well as to receive”

You can also find sign language signs, whose manner of articulation has been explained as. a composite of other characters, see:

“Wafer. After the white color sign and specifying the shape of the wafer, mimics breaking and eating”

The dictionary also shows the theological education of its creators. We can find descriptions of signs sign language such as: manna, advent, decanate, Abel, Abraham. Interestingly, in the Dictionary we can find also descriptions of … non-manual elements. Look at the description of the stink sign:

“Pressing the tips of the of the concentrated fingers of his right hand, one imitates ordinary sniffing and showing a face of displeasure, one turns one’s head to the side (as if avoiding such an object); Or it is expressed by plugging one’s nose with one’s fingers and turning to the side in revulsion”

In contrast, the way to blink the word “demand” is:

“With hands folded in prayer strenuously shake with appropriate facial expression. Also defined sometimes by a demand sign”

Hm, “Appropriate facial expression.” I wonder what facial expression comes to mind?

How to classify signs

Even then, the authors of the Dictionary were faced with a dilemma – describe the characters as they see them, or try to classify them according to categories “good sign showing” versus “bad sign showing”. The authors decided to to include an appendix entitled “For the sake of correction, the following is indicated the major errors, which deaf people in sign language commit.” This annex contains about 100 words. However, were these really errors? Look at the description of the “potato” sign:

“Improperly imitate scraping the with the tip of the right index finger on the upright left index finger”

On what basis did the authors concluded that this was an error? Similarly, the “aunt” sign:

“Mistakenly express by hitting the right index finger against the left”.

“A mimic dictionary for the deaf and those who come into contact with them” – unique in the world

However, there is no doubt, That this collection is a unique document on a worldwide scale. It gives us a remarkable insight beyond that, what Polish sign language 200 years ago, But also gives us the opportunity at least a partial comparison of Polish sign language past and present. For example, the category “vegetables, fruits” in the corpus dictionary of Polish Sign Language contains 33 characters. After comparing them with the description found in Hollak and Jagodzinski’s dictionary, it can be said that the 13 entries are similar to the appearance of the signs of today’s Polish sign language. The release of a dictionary, which descriptively Will describe the signs of visual-spatial language required a lot of work and proved that they had already recognized the the great value of sign language in the lives of deaf students.

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