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A Grave and Gracious Woman : Deaf People and Signed Language in Colonial New England

A Grave and Gracious Woman : Deaf People and Signed Language in Colonial New England
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  287 Sign Language Studies Vol. 9 No. 3 Spring 2009 BREDA CARTY,SUSANNAH MACREADY,AND EDNA EDITH SAYERS “A Grave and GraciousWoman”:DeafPeople and Signed Language inColonial New England Sarah Pratt of Weymouth, Massachusetts,lived a fairlytypical New England life in an era defined by Puritanism.Born July 4 ,  1640 ,as Sarah Hunt,she grew up in a large blended family,with astepfather and various step- and half-siblings,until the death ofher mother when she was twelve,after which she came under the care of guardians whom her mother had appointed.Sarah married at agetwenty-one.Both she and her husband enjoyed long lives,and their marriage produced nine children.Along with her husband,she was ac-cepted into church fellowship,which entitled her to participate in theLord’s Supper,following the obligatory questioning by the elders of the church.She could give a good account ofthe doctrines ofNewEngland Puritanism taught by the ministers ofthe Weymouth churchand,like many women whose “spiritual relations”were recorded inthe first and second generation ofPuritan settlers,proved her genuineinterest in religion by the concern she had for her own soul.As IncreaseMather reported in 1684 ,Sarah was “to the best observation,a grave Breda Carty is a Lecturer in Special Education at the RIDBC Renwick Centre,University ofNewcastle.Susannah Macready is an Honorary Associate in theSchool ofLetters,Art and Media,in the Faculty ofArts at the University ofSydney.Edna Edith Sayers is a Professor ofEnglish at Gallaudet University.  288 | Sign Language Studies and gracious Woman.” 1 She died in Weymouth on August 3 ,  1729 ,atthe age ofeighty-nine.Typical as she was,the circumstance that earns Sarah a place in In-crease Mather’s 1684  An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences isthat she was deaffrom the age ofabout three.Her husband,MatthewPratt, 2 was also deafened through sickness at the age oftwelve.Althoughhe,too,was a full member ofhis church,it is Sarah’s conversion and itscommunication through sign language that Mather records as an “il-lustrious providence.”While Mather realized that Sarah’s ability to un-derstand and participate in church fellowship was remarkable,what isnoteworthy for sign language history today is that a signed languagecapable ofthis level ofabstraction and used within an extended fam-ily existed in America only a generation after the founding ofPlymouthcolony.Mather’s commemoration ofSarah’s life and ofher comprehensionof“the great Mysteries ofSalvation”occurs in chapter IX ofhis Es-say. The chapter,about twenty pages in length,begins by transcribingin full a four-page letter from an informant in Weymouth who de-scribes Sarah and Matthew,revealing the remarkable level ofaccessthey seem to have had to church and community life.The followingeight pages are devoted to Mather’s comprehensive summary ofschol-arship on the implications ofdeafness for salvation,which cites a widerange ofEuropean sources on deafpeople,their communication,andtheir literacy.The remaining pages ofthe chapter deal with other “afflictions”such as blindness.The history ofdeafpeople in the United States—their communi-ties,signed languages,and education—is now relatively well docu-mented (e.g.,Lane 1984 ;Groce 1985 ;Van Cleve and Crouch 1989 ;Baynton 1996 ;Lang 2007 ).Most ofthis history has concentrated onthe beginnings ofdeafeducation in the early nineteenth century,thespread ofdeafschools,communities,and organizations,and debatesabout education throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth cen-turies—usually regarded as the formative period in the evolution of the modern Deafcommunity and its language (e.g.,Lane 1984 ;VanCleve and Crouch 1989 ).Accounts that deal with earlier deafhistoryusually begin with the deafpopulation on the island ofMartha’s Vine- yard in Massachusetts during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,  where there was a much higher than usual incidence ofdeafness and,as a consequence,widespread use ofsign language by both deafandhearing people (Groce 1985 ).Groce (ibid.) reported that the firstrecorded observation ofa deafperson on Martha’s Vineyard was in 1714  —this was Jonathan Lambert,who was born in the town ofBarn-stable in Massachusetts and had moved to the island in 1694 .Lang( 2007 ) has recently described several instances ofother deafpersons inthe American colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth cen-turies,and Mather’s text gives us more detailed information about oneofthe instances Lang cites,that ofSarah and Matthew Pratt.Mather’s chapter appears to be the first extended account ofdeaf people written in America and is thus a significant discovery.It invitesreassessment ofcurrent versions ofAmerican deafhistory,the srcinsofAmerican Sign Language (ASL),and the history ofdeafliteracy be-fore the establishment ofdeafeducation.This article reviews and an-alyzes what is known or can be gleaned from existing records aboutSarah’s and Matthew’s families,education,signing,and participation inthe life oftheir community.We suggest that the signed communica-tion they employed was almost certainly more complex than a pro-tolanguage or homesign system and that literacy played a part in their participation in church and community life.First,however,we lookat what Mather—writing in the early 1680 s—knew about deafness,deafpeople,and signed communication and at the purpose and as-sumptions ofhis book. Seventeenth-Century Knowledge about Deafness and Signed Languages Increase Mather ( 1639  –  1723 ) was one ofthe foremost clergymen of Massachusetts during the later seventeenth and early eighteenth cen-turies.He was educated at home,at Harvard College,and at TrinityCollege in Dublin.After some time preaching in England,he returnedto Massachusetts in 1661 and became minister ofthe Second ChurchofBoston.While he is less well known than his son Cotton,he wasno less important in the leadership ofthe early colonies,and his pro-lific writings on scientific,theological,and historical subjects show thathe was an exact and thorough scholar (see figure 1 ). “A Grave and Gracious Woman”| 289  290 | Sign Language Studies Mather’s Essay was written before the full blossoming ofthe En-lightenment and its almost frantic interest in language and quixoticsearch for the “srcinal”or “perfect”human language.Vico’s hypoth-esis that a signed language preceded all spoken languages and Condil-lac’s and Diderot’s musings on “the primitive poetic energy ofvisiblegestures”(Rée 1999 ,  135  –  36 ) all lay in the future,as did the schools for deafchildren founded by Thomas Braidwood and Charles-Michel del’Épée.Commentary on deafpeople,their sign language,and their ed-ucation often occurred in the context ofreligious debates,and edu-cation itselfwas a matter for individuals and family rather thaninstitutions or the state.Mather had access to and had clearly read al-most all ofthe relevant sources available at the time,including theo-logical analyses ofdeafpeople’s status and accounts ofdeafpeople’slives and education. Figure 1. Increase Mather 
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