In the late 1600s, Jonathan Lambert, a native of Kent, England, journeyed to Chilmark, a small town on the west end of Martha’s Vineyard. He was Deaf, as were his children, and they were known as the first Deaf residents of the island. This is how the legacy of Martha Vineyard’s Sign Language sparked, but shortly thereafter died down.
Chilmark remained a very secluded part of Martha’s Vineyard. It did not have ports like the other small towns along the island, which meant there weren’t many outside visitors. A lot of hereditary traits were passed down from one individual to the next. With that, the Lambert family’s deafness inevitably spread throughout Chilmark and in return, one in every 25 residents were Deaf. To understand how drastic this number really was, we can compare it to the number of Deaf people in the United States as an entire country: one in every 5,700.
Lambert knew how to converse through a sign language that was rooted deep in the heritage of his English hometown, Kent. He brought this sign language to Chilmark, where everyone picked up on the subtle hand movements. It came very natural to those who occupied the town—even people who were not hard of hearing. The sign language swept Chilmark and became something unique to their small town!
Families passed the language down to younger generations. Sign language became a skill everyone, including hearing folks, on the island was taught. Unfortunately, there aren’t many records that showcase Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, but there have been a few people who lived during the peak of the town’s Deaf population that have been able to speak to it.
The last known Deaf person to use Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language passed away in 1952, and there are only a few hearing people still alive that still hold knowledge of this powerful, yet silent, language used throughout the island.
Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language ultimately opened doors for new innovations in American Sign Language. During the year of 1817, the American School for the Deaf was established in Hartford, Connecticut. Here, the professionals and students would be able to develop a new sign language that would be used nationwide.
Some people knew Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language or a similar way to sign that they used solely in their community, while others had made up signs within their household and some knew French Sign Language. The combination of those different signs would eventually make up the official American Sign Language. However, even today there are variations on signs between communities, just like how different areas of the nation have different speaking accents.
By Sam McCormack, contributor for Ripleys.com