ABORIGINAL SIGN LANGUAGE

:
A STATEMENT
LA MONT WEST
If there is a field of sign language, pantomime and
dance analysis in Aboriginal Australia, it is being created
today. My own researcll is focused on the grammatical
description of Aboriginal sign languages-the ordered
assemblages of manual and facial gestures that comprise
complete language systems co-ordinate with spoken lan-
guages in some parts of Australia.
The original impetus for a modern linguistic research
programme to rec,ord and analyse sign language came from
the late Professor A. L. Kroeber of the University of Cali-
fornia in Berkeley. Professor C. F. Voegelin of Indiana
University arranged for the field work and supervised the
analysis, both performed by myself (1956-7 in America and
from 1960 on"vards in Australia). Professor Kroeber hoped
that a study of sign langllage ,voJlld lead to a comparison of
an adequately described non-verbal language with verbal
language, and give some insight into general human thought
processes. In addition, Professor Voegelin hopes to apply
general linguistics techniques to sign language, the world's
only major non-spoken language system, and thus evaluate
linguistics theory and methodology for 'language' generally,
as distinct from only spoken language. The immediate
task, before such high-level theorizing can be indulged, is
to provide accurate and detailed descriptions of several
extant sign languages.
Here, I am concerned to state a case for focused research
in the fields of sign language, pantomime and dance in
Australia. Each of these areas is of considerable interest
strllcturally in its own right; and each can yield unique
insights into many other aspects of Aboriginal culture. But
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incidental or diffuse study in these domains, ,vithout
specialized analytical techniques, yields only frustration and
corpora of unmanageable, unpublishable descriptions. Jones
has pointed out during the Conference that only a musically
trained person can cope with musical and ethnomusicologi-
cal transcription. The same is true of sign language, and
perhaps more so. My transcriptions of American Plains
Indian and Australian Aboriginal sign languages are the
world's first field transcriptions for any sign language and
perhaps will be the last. It is somewhat more complex than
musical transcription and much less widely known. Indeed,
the hole field of. gesture study is slightly understood and
has short future prospects. There will surely be field work
for the next ten or fifteen years in Australia and America,
but then we may have seen the demise of all functioning
sign languages. There is no time to wait for interest in the
subject to grow and specialists to be trained. The bulk of
the field work must be performed now and by the few
appropriately trained research workers.
The Volume of the Material
One difference between incidental research and. focused
research can be appreciated from the fact that only some
1,980 items (mainly lexical) of Australian Aboriginal sign
language have been noted in the ,,,,hole history of published
travellers' reports and ethnographic studies. I know of no
organized reporting of mime in the literature. As for dance,
although Spencer and Gilletl, Elkin, Strehlow and the
Berndts have recorded quite a mass of material which will
be useful for assessing the potential, no focused work has
yet been done. In addition to published descriptions of sign
language, there are unpublished field descriptions, but not
in sufficient numbers to modify significantly the figure of
1,980 available items. By contrast, I have collected and
transcribed in the past twelve months or so 18,895 sign lan-
guage items in the field in north-eastern Australia. About
half of these are single lexical items; about half of the
remainder are sentence-length texts, and the rest are In
ABORIGINAL SIGN LANGUAGE
somewhat longer texts, some ranging up to four or five
pages with 500 signs each. In addition, I have filmed 4,000
feet of 16-mm. illustrating some of this material and about
400 feet illustrating mimes. I have nothing on paper for
the mimes, but have about two dozen dances fully tran-
scribed and 400 feet of film exemplifying some of them.
The terms dance, mime and sign language should perhaps
be more explicitly distinguished here. Within the general
context of a 'dance party' or performance, dance movements
are defined as those that are varied or repeated systematic-
ally, but only within the structure of the dance. Mimes are
expressive movements that are not repeated systematically
in or out of the dance situation. Sign language and gesture
are movements which are repeated systematically both in
and out of the dance or drama situation. Sign language is
distinguished from gesture by all its movements comprising
an overt, recognized linguistic structure, as in the case of a
spoken language. Gestures, though conventional, are not
explicitly formulated as a complete linguistic system.
I have said that the history of these studies, as a discipline,
starts today. Actually, the preliminary work was started by
the Australian anthropologist Dr Meggitt. In 1954 he
applied a modern analytical technique to the study of sign
language distribution, in his brief but exemplary statistical
treatment of lexical material from Roth, Howitt and other
sources. He has also coined the term 'finguistics' by which
l'he study will perhaps be known, if it ever achieves the
status of an independent discipline. At present, linguists
and anthropologists each cheerfully assign sign language to
the other; and no special discipline has emerged to study
expressive movement in all its forms.
Finguistics and mimetics are different and complementary
areas of research parallel with linguistics and acoustics or
semantics and psychology. Finguistics is a systematic body
of techniques for analysing the grammatical structure of
manual sign language-the exact counterpart of linguistics,
which analyses spoken language grammar. Mimetics, as a
study of expressive movement, would treat a much broader
range of bodily activities than sign language and from a
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markedly different point of vie'v. It is likely that for
efficiency the student of mimetics ,vould need to treat the
fully-analysed results of finguistics study as part of his start-
ing data. Just so, psycll010gists take spoken language data
as 'given' and leave grammatical analysis to the linguist.
The Implications of Sign Language and Mime Study for
other Disciplines
The conceptualization of their own technology on the
part of Aborigines is beautifully exemplified in their selec-
tion of mime and sign language forms to illustrate both
.products and techniques of manufacture. This can form an
important supplement to McCarthy's functional document-
ary studies of material culture. It also may provide concrete
data which could be compared with verbal descriptions of
the same activities to broaden the base of psychological
studies.
Sign language gives concrete symbolization of a view of
the world, by the selection of one or another distinctive
feature to represent an object or an animal. This relates
to onomatopceia in spoken language; and it applies to some-
thing like ninety-five per cent. of sign language, whereas
probably not more than four or five per cent. of spoken
language is onomatopceic. One implication of this is that
light can be thrown on problems of typology in material
culture. Sign language can give clues as to which features
are locally regarded as traits in particular objects. This can
help clear the way for seriation studies in archaeology, such
as have come to the fore in North America recently for
areas poor in stratified sites.
Secondly, the conceptual breakdown of categories implicit
in sign language structure can be compared with that im-
plicit in spoken language. For instance, I have encountered
disparate referent ranges for kin terms in sign and spoken
languages of the same groups. Such cases might help us to
understand the relationsilip between the ideal and the
operating structures.
Thirdly, the material of sign language and of dance is
ABORIGINAL SIGN LANGUAGE
very closely linked ,vith folk-lore and ethnomusicological
studies. I have found it ,vorth ,vhile to turn to corroboree
to get more complete representation in gesture and mime
of mythological subject matter. In some cases, tIle sign lan-
guage and pantomime information given in the course of a
corroboree exceeds, botil in scope and in specificity, tIle
spoken language versions of the corresponding myths and
song texts.
The Uniqueness of Australian Aboriginal Sign Langtlage
and Choreograplty
Aboriginal sign language is one of only t,vo indisputable
systems of natural manual sig'n languag'e extant in the ,vorld
today. The other is tIle Alnerican Plains Indian sign lan-
guage. There ,vas an Arlnenian ,vomen's sign langllage until
it ,vas discouraged by the Soviets in the 1930's. There is a
partly natural deaf-mute sign language still, ,vhere it has not
been replaced by lip-reading or manual spelling of ,vritten
language forms. There are very restricted monastic and
Neapolitan sign langllages. And there are the extraordin-
arily complex Hindu dance mimes, the transcription of
,vhich is a Ilig'hly specialized matter.
There is no doubt at all that a specialist is essential
in some areas of the study of culture. EtIlnomusicology is
certainly one of them, and sign language is another. No
real analysis ,vas practicable before a transcription was avail-
-,' able. Given a ,vritten corpus of sign language data, tIle
analytical metIlodology is identical ,vitil that of linguistics,
although the structures of sign languages differ importantly
from those of any spoken languages.
Australian Aboriginal choreography attains to a standard
of quality nearly unique in the vvorld, especially among
small societies. An extraordinarily high degree of choreo-
graphic complexity has been achieved, botil ,vith and ,vith-
out centralized autilority directing rellearsals and perforrn-
ances. TIle Aboriginal ballet traclitioll is perllaps on a par
,vith the folk ballets of Russia, South-East Asia, India and
Indonesia. It is a priceless Ileritage for Australia, ,vith a
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strona claim for intensive study. But satisfactory transcrip-
tion analysis require techniques as specialized and diffi-
cult as those of linguistics.
The Distribution of Sign Language Dialects
There is an interesting distribution of sign language
dialects in Australia, with a fair-sized area of the continent
plus the Torres Straits one group, .an?
another bia area of the contInent formIng another. ThIS IS
a tentative°assessment. If it proves to be correct, it will sug-
gest a modification of the traditional in
distribution of cultural traits, the -most ObVIOUS mIgratIon
route into Australia appears to be cut by a discontinuity
at Torres Straits, rather than a continuity through to Papua.
There is continuity in sign language dialect distribution
from the Western Desert tp'Torres Straits; and it is perhaps
the only clear instance of a complex of traits with such
continuity.
The Urgency of Research
The data for a continent-wide distribution study of dance
styles have yet to be assembled. Aboriginal pantomime and
drama are even less clearly understood. Time is running
out.
Sign language, dance and drama are aspects of culture
that do not .just fade away gradually. They stop suddenly.
One day the last performance of a drama is given. No one
'knows at first that it was the last performance. There may
be dozens or hundreds of people ,vho could give informa-
tion about it from then on until their deaths; but for one
reason or another it is never again performed. Wurm has
pleaded urgency for linguistic studies the people
with memory of the languages are dYIng In crUCIal areas.
Sian language and dance in most cases disappear before
languages, so that the remaining field for research
is narrower still.
The portion of Australia which has bee!,! systematically
surveyed for sign language by myself to date IS the north-
ABORIGINAL SIGN LANGUAGE
eastern fifth, and tilat is abollt tlvo-fifths, at Inost, of what
is available. The lexical survey and dialect distribution
study, in correlation with tIle apparently relevant social
traits such as mourning silence, may be' finished in the near
future for virtually all of Australia north of the Tropic of
Capricorn. There is further useful material in the southern
portion of the Northern Territory, perhaps less farther
south in \Vestern Australia, still less in Queensland and
South Australia.
Depth studies in the grammar of sign language have been
started in Torres Straits. Intensive work is likely among
the Walpiri under my present research plans. The crucial
areas of Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys are still question
marks. I hope, too, that it is not too late some,vhere to do
the complete study of one ceremony, one dramatic occasion,
as Mountford urges. At this moment in Australia there are
known to be three ethnomusicologists concerned with
Aboriginal material, a choreographer ,vith knowledge of
Labanotation, and myself concerned with sign language.
These are people who can do transcription in the field, so
important in a satisfactory analytical study. Perhaps a piece
of basic combined field work is not beyond hope.
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