Visual-Kinetic Communication in Europe Before 1600: A Survey of Sign Lexicons and Finger Alphabets Prior to the Rise of Deaf Education
Bragg, Lois (Department of English, Gallaudet University)
Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 2:1 Winter (1997)
Visual-kinetic communication system—ancient finger numbers, medieval and Renaissance finger alphabets, conventionalized “coverbal” gesture systems for oratory and the theater, the Roman pantomine, monastic sign lexicons, and the elusive possibility of natural sign languages—have all received the scholarly attention that has turned up the few surviving primary texts from the period before 1600. The extant documentation indicates that may visual-
kinetic systems were sporadically in use among the general (i.e., hearing) population ro a degree almost unimaginable to post-Renaissance societies such as ours that populary associate “gesture languages” with the deaf. In detail, however, the texts are often difficult to interpret, not only becuase of their scarcity and generally highly allusive nature, but also because of modern historians’ often unproductive or misproductive approaches to them. This survey is meant to provide an overview of the textual evidence and a foundation for both sign language linguists and historians of the deaf and of deaf education to analyze and interpret more accurately and usefully the extant evidence for visual-kinetic communication systems before the rise of Deaf Education.