Martha’s Vineyard had an unusually large number of Deaf residents beginning in the early 18th century. Deafness seemed to be a recessive hereditary trait that manifested on the island resulting in a need for a new form of communication; sign language. Derived from two sign language predecessors, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language would stand as the foundation for American Sign language after Deaf islanders enrolled in the American School for the Deaf, consequently bringing the language with them. The language has developed structurally since its inception marking it as its own language, a system of verbal inflection, that utilizes movement, rhythm, and stationary hand positions to communicate.
ASL does not stand as a language of pantomime. It is a language with subjects, verbs, and direct and indirect objects. There are different ways to inflect sentences and create meaning between words. For example, if one wanted to communicate “the girl wants a cat,” the signs for girl-wants-cat or cat, girl-wants, could help to create the sentence depending on how ASL is being taught and utilized. At it’s core, the goal is to communicate sign language most clearly and affectionately, giving the emotion and intent of language back to a vernacular devoid of sound. This allows much room for expressivity and creativity as motion, facial expression, and physical expression are all necessary components to convey the essence of a thought.
The signs that make up ASL evolve quickly. Often the more abstract signs may function as indicators of topical and colloquial vernacular, giving interpreters the opportunity to dig into the expressive nature of the language. An interpreter, or translator of American Sign Language, has an extremely intense and difficult job. Like most translators, a person who takes spoken words and turns it into another language must quickly assess the meaning or essence of a person’s words in order for it to make sense contextually. An ASL “interpreter” has even more interpretive power when sign language comes into the picture.
Interpreters of ASL are faced with the challenge of taking language, a complex and ever changing phenomenon, and having it make sense with efficiency and verisimilitude– using not just a distinctly different alphabet and set of sounds, but in fact, an entirely different part of one’s body. The interpreter thus functions as an important member of the community that uses ASL. She provides a gateway into a world of culture, information, and entertainment; a world where communication is incredibly important and necessary for all parties involved.
During the 2013 Bonaroo festival in Tennessee, an ASL interpreter stood in front of one of the main stages as the famous rap group Wu-Tang Clan performed some of their iconic repertoire.
Wu-Tang Clan utilizes lyrics that, while completely inappropriate for a family-reunion karaoke performance, are legitimate and belong to the cannon of classic and influential rap jams. “Clan” gets to preach ironically, “can it all be so simple, da mystery of chessboxin’” while an interpreter indeed must make chessboxin’ look, oh, so simple indeed. For lovers of rap music, and for the Deaf or those with hearing loss, this ASL interpreter must use her energy and creativity to communicate interpreted vocabulary for distinctive words and idioms that may not exist in ASL.
This particular interpreter interprets with such zeal that she, too, becomes a part of the performance. Every movement of her fingers holds specific meaning for ASL speakers, yet to non speakers it could look like an a amazing dance performance, blurring the line between language and art.
During a speech that Mayor Michael Bloomberg made regarding relief of Hurricane Sandy, his interpreter uses the expressive qualities of ASL to illustrate the direness of the situation at hand. She puts forth attitude and effort in order to communicate the mayor’s words with sincerity and accuracy.
Multiple news networks ran stories on both of these women and their passionate expression of the language. Saturday Night Live was even inspired by Mayor Bloomberg’s interpreter to run a sketch pitting the complexities and mumbles of the mayor against the clarity and focus of the ASL interpreter. Perhaps even SNL, in all its reckless comedic abandon, acknowledges how ASL provides a more transparent agenda for viewers than politicians ever could.
American Sign Language has come a long way from its roots as an locally used expressive language to communicate with the Deaf and hard of hearing in Martha’s Vineyard, which ostensibly, has become a staple, institutional means for communication with the Deaf and those with hearing loss in North America. ASL will continue to grow and evolve as the beautiful and expressive language it is while English, and its idioms, also change. But ASL and its interpreters are incredibly important for the the community of civil servants who are set to bring the hearing and non-hearing together; integrating Deaf culture into the mainstream and connecting us as a greater, and more understanding, society.