Access to Justice for Deaf Persons in Nunavut: Focus on Signed Languages



5.1 Sign language used by deaf persons in Nunavut

One of the main issues that this project was initially concerned with is the issue of the existence of an indigenous sign language in Nunavut. Does the signing system fulfil the basic characteristics of a language? Are the signs and the structure of the language consistent across communities? Does the signing system provide a basis for a coherent language system that can, in turn, provide access to the courts for the deaf people of Nunavut? These questions are key. It could be argued that it may be difficult to justify the cost involved in training sign language court interpreters if the signing system among deaf people in Nunavut was nothing more than a gesture system with little or no consistency between and within communities.

However, if this were the case, then the situation in Nunavut would be quite remarkable because the inevitable conclusion would be that many of the deaf people of Nunavut are without language entirely. In all three communities I studied I was told by all participants, deaf and hearing, that whether in camps in the earlier days, or in the settlements, signing was an inherent part of the linguistic space of deaf infants. This clearly means that the early babbling of the deaf infants would have naturally developed into whatever sign language was being used in the linguistic environment of the child. Questions such as: is this language rooted in the hearing Inuit culture or is it specific to deaf people; or what is the degree of consistency between different communities; or what is the exact nature of the dialectal variations between communities, are all legitimate questions for further linguistic study. Only a preliminary treatment of these issues will be given here. What cannot be disputed is that, at least in some communities, a sign language indigenous to the Inuit culture has developed, one that is referred to by at least some Inuit as Inuk Sign Language.

5.2 Linguistic theories

Philosophers, scientists and linguists have long sought to find a clear case of any person who, in spite of normal upbringing and intelligence, is without a language (Osborne, 1999; Lane, 1976). The majority of cases where absence of language has been demonstrated have been totally confounded with pathological social, psychological and physical deprivation (Curtiss, 1977). Many prominent linguists (Chomsky, 1975; Pinker, 1994) assert that language is not "learned" in the ordinary sense of the word, but emerges naturally as a basic biological characteristic of all human beings. In this context the search for a "pure" case of a person who is "without language", but normal in every other way, is seen as a misguided question at best. An important emerging fact about language is that it is fundamentally rooted in the infant, not the environment (Chomsky, 1975; Petitto, 2000; Pinker, 1994). If the child is hearing, early babbling will spontaneously develop, if deaf, babbling will be in the manual mode (Petitto, 2000).

Unless active steps are taken to suppress the early utterances of infants (in sign or speech), the child will acquire the language of his or her environment as naturally as he or she would learn to walk. Of course the specific language environment of a child is important as the inherent biological endowment and the language space work in tandem to produce language in the full sense of the term. Exactly how this happens is a complex process that is still not fully understood (Crystal, 1987).

5.3 Historical and comparative perspective on education of Inuit deaf children

The question of how languages - especially signed languages (Armstrong, 1999) develop in a variety of locations across different cultures in the context of the relative importance of biological and environmental factors, is a major preoccupation of linguists and other academics. The recent controversy over the factors involved in the apparent spontaneous development of a signed language in Nicaragua is a good example of the contentious nature of current issues in this field (Osborne, 1999).

The dynamics of social and linguistic change on deaf children in the context of the evolution of isolated deaf communities has been documented by Washabaugh (1980, 1981) in his study of two island communities in the Caribbean, Providence and Grand Cayman Island. Based on his studies he presents theories concerning the influence of "high" and "low" prestige languages on the linguistic situation within the deaf communities involved. High prestige languages are typically those of the colonizer while low prestige languages are indigenous languages. Some deaf children from these islands were sent away to schools to Great Britain and America, while others remained behind and developed an indigenous form of sign language. Both islands were heavily influenced by British and American sign languages.

While there are differences between the Caribbean communities and the situation in Nunavut, nevertheless the theories developed and some of the fundamental linguistic processes may be applicable. Future research will undoubtedly benefit from a discussion of both situations.

The Canadian context of the history of removing children, in particular, deaf children from their communities to send them south for education has to be considered. Deaf children who went south to residential schools would have most often been in "oral" programs (Ling, 1984; MacDougall, 1991; Rodda and Grove, 1987) where sign language was forbidden. In some schools signing would have taken place informally and only in a few cases would ASL (or some form of signed English) have actually been taught to the deaf children. Inuit deaf children would have been returned to their communities on an ad hoc basis at various ages depending on current educational policy for their home communities. The details of one such story involving five deaf children is described in Appendix D. The contrast in linguistic experience between the children who went south and those who stayed home is informative.

It is clear from the story and from my observations that children who went south have a more difficult time communicating with their families since the sign language they learned is not known to the communities in the north.

Another important consideration is that virtually every society in the world has its own form of sign language (Klima and Bellugi, 1979; Siple and Fischer, 1991). Furthermore, many Aboriginal peoples in North and South America, Australia, and elsewhere are known to have developed signed languages (Farnell, 1995; Mallery, 1889; Sayce, 1880 ; Sebeok & Umiker-Sebeok, 1978; Tomkins, 1969). Most of these languages were developed by hearing people for use by hearing people and their utility for deaf members of the community appears to be incidental in most cases.

One interesting study based on an analysis of a number of Aboriginal peoples (using the Human Resources Relations Files at Yale University) found support for the hypothesis that nomadic hunting peoples often developed such signed languages (Divale & Zipin, 1977).

Other studies have indicated that signed languages developed as lingua franca in cases where peoples with different mutually unintelligible spoken dialects needed to communicate (Farnell, 1995). Both of these conditions hold with the Inuit people in Nunavut. They are (or at least were) a nomadic hunting people and there continues to be frequent interactions between peoples from different communities using different dialects (Duffy, 1988).

5.4 Signed languages in Nunavut

Based on the information in this project, there is a strong indication that an indigenous form of sign language does exist in Nunavut. Observations of sign language conversations in the three communities involving five deaf and approximately ten hearing users indicates that a very complex sign language system is used extensively. The sign system is clearly not ASL/LSQ although variations of ASL and forms of Manually Coded English fingerspelling of English were noted among deaf people who had gone south to school. A preliminary analysis of various vocabulary items based on the linguistic corpus obtained suggests that expected dialectal variation exists between and within communities. However the underlying structure and visual-spatial-kinesthetic properties appear to be consistent with other signed languages.

A more formal and much more extensive linguistic analysis of the dialectal variations observed and recorded in the video-tapes and transcripts is required. Such an endeavour is well beyond the scope of this specific project. I can tentatively conclude, based on participant observation study here, that an underlying similarity to the structure of the signed languages exists and that there is the expected dialectal variation (Klima and Bellugi, 1979) in many lexical items. The signs for animals, e.g., "caribou", "polar bear", "wolf", "walrus" are all similar but with subtle differences among signers between communities. In some cases, as ith the second family studied in Rankin Inlet, more than one sign is used for the same item, e.g., for the word ‘bear’.

An opportunity arose at the conclusion of this project for the sign language interpreter from Baker Lake to observe the video-taped conversations which had taken place in Rankin Inlet and Pangnirtung.[4] In this way the specific meaning for signs could be compared. I drew his attention specifically to vocabulary items which I had identified as representing lexical variation between communities. This included the signs for various animals as well as signs for "warm", "hot", "cold","deaf", "hearing", "before", "after", "happy", "sad", "sign language", "white man’s sign language", "fear", "store", "go", "don’t know", "who", "where", "no", "yes", "man", "woman", "small", "large", and "money".

There was an excellent correspondence in the interpreter’s understanding of the Pangnirtung and the Rankin Inlet signs. He determined that approximately one-third of the signs were similar across communities with very minor variations; for an additional one-third, the signs appeared somewhat similar but with marked variation; the remaining one-third of signs were quite different but were reported by the interpreter to be easily understandable. I had no independent way to determine if his understanding of the meaning of the different signs was correct, therefore, only the overall estimate of differences in dialect are reported. Again, information on lexical variation between specific signs would require further controlled study and analysis.

This preliminary analysis suggests that there is a good deal of transparency between the signed languages in different communities. This is noted more for "iconic" rather than "abstract" signs. A reasonable hypothesis is that there is but one Inuit sign language with local dialectal variations. This would be consistent with the reality that, until very recently, there would have been extensive contact between peoples from various regions. Even now, many settled communities in Nunavut are comprised of people originally from various geographical areas (Duffy, 1988).

Another important aspect of sign language is the signing space. This element has been studied extensively in ASL and other signed languages. The hands, arms and body are used in a proscribed way in virtually all signed languages. For example, Klima and Bellugi (1979) point out the that physical constraints are different for ASL as compared with Chinese Sign Language (CSL). In addition, hand shapes are biologically constrained specific to a particular signed language. My observation was that both of these elements, signing space and shape constraints, fit within the accepted linguistic parameters although much more detailed analysis is necessary.

All of the signers studied had elaborate systems for time, counting, dates, days of the week, weeks, months and ways to refer to the past, present and the future. Some similarities were observed but there were differences as well. What is clear is that all the systems were different from that used in ASL except in cases where the deaf person had been exposed to ASL; in these cases some ASL terms were present.

In terms of narrative reports from hearing family members, deaf individuals, and other interested stakeholders in the community, it seems clear that deafness and sign language are not stigmatized. Rather, a surprising number of hearing persons use the sign language in contrast to the situation that exists in southern Canada. A well known case of the same phenomena, i.e., large numbers of hearing people using sign language, can be found in the study of hereditary deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (Groce, 1985) as well as in Washabaugh (1980, 1981) in his studies of various Caribbean islands.

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