#367) Preservation of the Sign Language (1913)

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#367) Preservation of the Sign Language (1913)

OR “Grandparents of a Lesser God”

Written by George Veditz

Class of 2010

The Plot: National Association of the Deaf’s president George Veditz signs an impassioned speech about preserving sign language at a time when such countries as France and Germany were eradicating the practice. Veditz promotes signing’s superiority to lip-reading, as well as his mission to preserve sign language through a series of films.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives no superlatives, but their write-up includes a healthy dosage of historical context. There’s also a detailed essay by Christopher Shea, archivist at Gallaudet University (whose namesake gets a shout-out in the film).

But Does It Really?: Many films on this list document a culture or a specific time period, but “Preservation of the Sign Language” may be the only one to preserve a language. I’m always looking for NFR entries that stand on their own unique piece of land, and “Preservation” achieves that from its first moments. An important inclusion to the NFR, and yet another reminder for me to brush up on my ASL.

Everybody Gets One: George Veditz was fluent in both English and German (both his parents were immigrants) before losing his hearing at age eight to scarlet fever. He studied at the aforementioned Gallaudet University (then known as the Columbia Institute for the Instruction of the Deaf). After being elected president of the National Association of the Deaf, Veditz was the first to recognize film as a medium to preserve ASL, raising the necessary funds for a proposed film series. “Preservation of the Sign Language” is the first of the NAD’s films.

Wow, That’s Dated: Though ASL is common practice now, it was not widely accepted 100 years ago. The Milan Conference of 1880 put an official emphasis on the oralist method of deaf communication, focusing on speech and lip reading. Sign language was on the brink of being totally eliminated throughout Europe. The National Association of the Deaf was founded in America to combat the oralist method and promote sign as the more effective practice.

Other notes

  • “Preservation of the Sign Language” is presented without subtitles, but I was able to track down a transcript done a few years back by UC San Diego Professor Carol Padden. It differs in some areas from George Veditz’s handwritten translation, proving that, like any other language, ASL has a complexity of vocabulary that greatly depends on interpretation.
  • Knowing his audience, Veditz begins with a respectful reference to Charles-Michel de l’Épé While he didn’t invent sign language, l’Épée was responsible for sharing it with the world, earning him the moniker “Father of the Deaf”.
  • It should be noted that of the 164 delegates of the Milan Conference of 1880, only two of them were deaf.
  • Among the many prominent deaf figures that get a mention in this film are the aforementioned Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Gallaudet University football coach John B. Hotchkiss, Professor Edward Allen Fay, and first NAD president Robert P. McGregor (nicknamed “Rob Roy” by George Veditz).
  • The $5,000 raised by George Veditz is the equivalent of about $129,000 today.
  • ASL may have been the first language that used film as a form of preservation. Think about it: any other language would have had to wait for sound to properly document their cadence and pronunciation. Veditz makes a point to sign slowly, spelling out several words; ensuring that both the language and the alphabet would be preserved.
  • “Fifty years from now, these moving picture films will be priceless.” You gotta respect someone with that kind of foresight.

Legacy

  • George Veditz helped make several films preserving sign language, with topics ranging from poems, songs, jokes, and the Gettysburg Address. Many of these films no longer survive, but the remaining few have been preserved by Gallaudet University and, you guessed it, the Library of Congress.
  • The National Association of the Deaf is still going strong 140 years after its founding. You can find more information about the NAD here.

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