Preservation of the Sign Language (1913/2010)

Directed by George Veditz


Preservation of the Sign Language was released on a long-out-of-print VHS tape called The Preservation of American Sign Language in 1997. The film can be seen (without subtitles) on YouTube.

The following translation of Preservation of the Sign Language by Dr. Carol A. Padden was generously provided to me by Jim Van Manen, Ph.D., Associate Professor, American Sign Language, Columbia College Chicago

“Friends and fellow deaf-mutes:

“The French deaf people loved de l’Epee. Every year on the occasion of his birthday, they gather together at banquets and festivities to show their appreciation that this man was born on this earth. They journey to his grave site in Versailles and place flowers and green wreaths on his grave to show their respect for his memory.

“They loved him because he was their first teacher. But they loved him more for being the father and inventor of their beautiful sign language.

“For the last 33 years, with eyes filled with tears and hearts broken, the French deaf people have watched this beautiful language of signs snatched away from their schools. For the last 33 years, they have strived and fought for the restitution of signs in the schools but for 33 years their teachers have cast them aside and refused to listen to their pleas. But their teachers would much rather listen to the worthless, cruel-hearted demands of people that think they know all about educating the deaf but know nothing about their thoughts and souls, their feelings, desires and needs.

“It is like this in Germany also. The German deaf people and the French deaf people look up at us American deaf people with eyes of jealousy. They look upon us Americans as a jailed man chained at the legs might look upon a man free to wander at will. They freely admit that the American deaf people are superior to them in matters of intelligence and spirituality, in their success in the world, in happiness. And they admit that this superiority can be credited to—what? To one thing, that we permit the use of signs in our schools. The French deaf people base their inferiority on one thing, the fact that oralism must be taught in their schools. They have eliminated finger spelling; they have eliminated signs. But we American deaf are rapidly approaching some bad times for our schools. False prophets are now appearing with news to the people that our American means of teaching the deaf are all wrong. These men have tried to educate people and make people believe that the oral method is really the one best means of educating the deaf.

“But we American deaf know, the French deaf know, the German deaf know that in truth, the oral method is the worst. Our beautiful sign language is now beginning to show the results of their attempts.

“They have tried to banish signs from the schoolroom, from the churches and from the earth. Yes, they have tried, so our sign language is deteriorating. From olden years, the masters of this sign language, the Peets, the Dudleys, the Elys, the Ballards, are rapidly disappearing. And we, in past years, loved these men. They had a precise command of sign language. They could communicate to us using only signs and we could understand them.

“But fortunately, we have several masters of our sign language still with us. Edward Miner Gallaudet learned this sign language from his father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. There are several others, like Dr. John B. Hotchkiss, Dr. Edward Allen Fay, Robert P. MacGregor who are still with us. And we want to preserve the signs as these men now use them, to keep and pass on to coming generations. There are many men now alive who have learned their signs from men like these. Many have tried to preserve and pass on their signs. But there is one known means of passing this on, through the use of moving picture films.

“Indeed, our National Association of the Deaf has raised a fund of $5000 for this purpose. We have made a number of films. We have films of Edward Miner Gallaudet, of Edward Allen Fay, of John B. Hotchkiss and Robert MacGregor and many others. I regret that we do not have $20,000, for we could have used it all. If we had this amount of money, we could have performances in sign language, sermons in sign language, lectures in sign language. And not only would we American deaf enjoy the benefits of this, but no—deaf people in Germany, in England, in France, in Italy would also see these moving picture films. Fifty years from now, these moving picture films will be priceless.

“‘A new race of pharaohs that knew not Joseph’ are taking over the land and many of our American schools. They do not understand signs for they cannot sign. They proclaim that signs are worthless and of no help to the deaf. Enemies of the sign language, they are enemies of the true welfare of the deaf. As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs. It is my hope that we all will love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.”

Professor Van Manen also provided the following commentary on the film:

“This written translation from Dr. Carol Padden is excellent. It resembles the actual typewritten English notes George Veditz used to prepare for the film which is housed in the Gallaudet University Archives. (I have seen these notes in person.)

“George Veditz became Deaf at the age of nine and spoke English fluently and German with near fluency before he went Deaf. He learned to use ‘the sign language’ (the name ASL wasn’t invented/coined until 1965) with near fluency, attending the Colorado School for the Deaf and Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University) but in his film, his signs follow the grammar of English more than most Deaf people of his time and certainly more than ASL users today. ASL has its own grammar that resembles that of French in part, and that of Russian in some ways. Veditz was the 7th president of the National Association of the Deaf and is most known for the film series his efforts created.

“The content of the film is factually inaccurate in several ways—the Abbe de l’Epee didn’t invent French Sign Language. He was exposed to Deaf twin girls who had associated with other Deaf people in Paris before the school for the Deaf existed. Epee’s claim to fame is establishing the French School for the Deaf. He is still sometimes called the Father of the Deaf, but mostly only by the French. A tradition of having a banquet in Epee’s honor near his birthday is still practiced today annually both in France and in New York—now often called the Epee and Clerc Banquet, adding the pivotal work of Laurent Clerc, a Deaf teacher who brought French Sign Language to the United States, causing ASL to be born in 1817 when the American School for the Deaf was founded. ASL is a mix of French Sign language, some words from Old Indian Sign languages and Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, a now dead predecessor of ASL that was used on the then isolated island of Martha’s Vineyard by both Deaf people on the island and their hearing family members—and being Deaf was quite common on the island likely from years of genetic isolation.

“Although Veditz’s goal of preserving the sign language (unchanged and without blemish) was foolish, the work he did provides some of the earliest historical record of modern ASL in existence. The project actually filmed starting in 1910—as Edward Minor Gallaudet’s film, which I saw a 16 mm copy of while I was in grad school in 1996, stated that that film was made in 1910.  The film series was copied in the 1940s by filming the screen presentation of the original silver nitrate films, but more than one source has told me that these films were duplicated many more times than this as they would wear out from constant and heavy use. The digital images we see online of this film and many that were made as part of the series are likely four times removed (or more) from the original films that were made. The efforts to both preserve the films by copying them and the efforts to share them widely in the 1920s with everyone in the American Deaf community was an amazing effort by more than 100 now unknown Deaf individuals.”

My deepest appreciation to Professor Van Manen for providing this invaluable translation and fascinating commentary for this obscure Film Registry title.