Dan O'Donnell

Dan O'Donnell

Common Sense Central is edited by WISN's Dan O'Donnell. Dan provides unique conservative commentary and analysis of stories that the mainstream media...Full Bio


The Language of the Vineyard

America is the sum total of its communities—sprawling cities and tiny villages alike—and the sense of community that they inspire in their people. And when those people unite, including all members of their community, they are stronger, better, and more American than they would be alone.

This is the Forgotten History of the Language of the Vineyard.

Jonathan Lambert dreaded this day, because in his heart he knew it was coming. His new baby wasn’t responding to voices or any sounds at all. He was otherwise healthy, but even before the doctor made the diagnosis, Jonathan knew: His baby was deaf.

Jonathan knew and, really, had always known because he himself was deaf and so were several members of his family. Jonathan, though, never let his deafness define him. An adventurous spirit, he migrated from his native Kent, England to the town of Chilmark on the small island of Martha’s Vineyard in the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1694.

He communicated with his wife, who could hear, through a regional sign language the couple had learned in Kent. As soon as his child was old enough, he learned it too. So did another of Jonathan’s children born deaf. So did his five children who could hear.

But even though those children weren’t deaf, they carried Jonathan’s recessive gene for deafness, and as they married and had large families of their own, a number of the children were born deaf as well. And since other villagers who had migrated from Kent were believed to carry the same recessive gene, as those families intermarried with Jonathan’s, the deaf population grew exponentially.

From Jonathan Lambert and his children in the early 1700s came a village where by the mid-1800s one in every 25 people was deaf. And their sign language—brought by Jonathan from Kent—developed into something new, something uniquely American.

It wasn’t just used by the deaf; the hearing too used it fluently—so fluently in fact that being deaf on Martha’s Vineyard wasn’t considered a disability at all. The deaf could communicate just as easily as the hearing because everyone—deaf and hearing alike—used what became known as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language as a second language.

Anyone who moved to the island was expected to be fluent in it, and nearly everyone was from the time they were a small child. Schoolhouse lessons were taught in Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language. Storekeepers talked to customers in Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language. Even mass was conducted in Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language.

Deaf villagers were among the town’s most prominent members. They owned some of the largest farms, ran some of the most prosperous businesses, and served in village government and the church. As word spread of this deaf utopia, deaf people from across New England moved to Chilmark and the deaf population grew even larger.

The island drew the attention of famed scientist Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who sought to determine the cause of deafness on the island. There was concern that something in the environment on Martha’s Vineyard—possibly its clay cliffs—was causing so many people be born deaf, but Bell realized almost immediately that there was a hereditary cause. He meticulously traced the ancestry of the people of the island all the way back to Jonathan Lambert and realized that genetics, not the environment, was responsible.

By the late 19th century, as transportation to and from Martha’s Vineyard became much easier, the island’s deaf utopia gradually came to an end as many of its deaf inhabitants moved to the mainland and settled there, especially so that they could enroll their children in the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.

But as they did, they shared Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language with other students and teachers there, and it helped form the basis for the language the deaf in the United States still use today: American Sign Language.

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