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Exploring the history and legacy of the lost Old Kentish Sign Language (updated)

Updated: May 1

Hello friends! Have you ever stumbled upon a piece of history that left you utterly amazed? Well, I recently uncovered a hidden gem that truly took me by surprise and sparked my curiosity like never before.

Let me take you on a journey through time as we delve into the fascinating world of Old Kentish/Kent Sign Language (OKSL), considered one of the oldest documented sign languages in the worl, and uncover some astonishing facts together!

Did you know that there was once a thriving Deaf Village in Maidstone, nestled within the charming landscapes of Kent, England?

Ye Olde Thirsty Pig, one of Maidstone’s oldest buildings (David J Constable)
Ye Olde Thirsty Pig, one of Maidstone’s oldest buildings (David J Constable)

But, what's a Deaf Village?

A Deaf Village is an isolated or insular community with a high incidence of hereditary deafness.

This village was a vibrant hub where deaf individuals lived, worked, and communicated in OKSL during the 17th century, forging deep connections within their community.

Now, picture this: The renowned British writer Samuel Pepys visited his friend Sir George Downing, and to his surprise, he found out that he and his deaf servant were engaging in a conversation about the recent London Fire of 1666 – not in spoken words, but in sign language!

London Fire 1666

Yes, you heard that right! It's incredible to imagine how OKSL played a pivotal role in communication during such significant historical events. So, Samuel Pepys decided to record it in his journal due to his fascination.

Here are some key points about Old Kent Sign Language:

1. Historical context: OKSL developed during a time when deaf education and sign languages were not standardised. Prior to the establishment of formal schools for the deaf, deaf individuals often relied on informal methods of communication within their local communities.

2. Community-based communication: OKSL was primarily used within the deaf community in Kent. It served as a means of communication for deaf individuals to interact with one another, share information, and form social connections.

3. Characteristics: Like many early sign languages, OKSL likely had a high degree of variability and regional variation. It would have evolved organically within the local deaf community, with signs and gestures being passed down through generations.

4. Influence: While OKSL is an extinct deaf sign language today, it is believed to have contributed along with other village sign languages, to the development of British Sign Language (BSL), which is the primary sign language used in the United Kingdom today. Some signs and features of OKSL may have influenced the early stages of BSL as it began to standardise in the 19th century.

The influence of OKSL extends beyond the shores of England, reaching the shores of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. Scholars speculate that migrants from the Kentish Weald region, where OKSL was prevalent, may have brought elements of this sign language to Martha's Vineyard.

Nora Groce (1985) speculates that OKSL may be the origin of Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, which is, in turn, one of the precursors of American Sign Language (ASL). Others have cautioned against uncritical reception of this claim, "because no deaf people were part of the original migration from Kent, and nothing is known about any specific variety of signing used in Kent."

5. Documentation: OKSL is known primarily through historical records and accounts from the time period. Researchers have studied these records to reconstruct aspects of the language and gain insights into the lives of deaf individuals in 18th-century England.

6. Legacy: While OKSL may no longer be actively used, its historical significance lies in its role as one of the earliest documented sign languages. Studying OKSL helps researchers understand the evolution of sign languages and the experiences of deaf communities in the past.

Overall, Old Kent Sign Language provides valuable insights into the history and development of sign languages, as well as the rich linguistic and cultural heritage of deaf communities in England.

Historically, vigalle sign languages are rarely mentioned in historial records, and due to their visual nature, they were not documentable. And here's where I need your help, dear readers.

Have you ever come across Old Kent Sign Language in your historical explorations? What are your thoughts on this remarkable piece of history? I'm eager to hear your opinions, insights, and any stories you might have encountered along the way.




Update (May 1, 2024): 

We would like to thank Kathleen Aiple (Deaf historian and author), Peter R. Brown (Deaf historian), and Adam Schembri (linguist) for sharing their insights with us. They have emphasised that there is currently no evidence to support the existence of Old Kentish Sign Language. Kathleen Aiple has noted that despite numerous inquiries and research efforts, only minimal evidence has been found, such as the case of a deaf servant during Elizabeth I's reign.

She said: "Richard Meier and Justin Power published a paper last year, conclusively showing that Old Kentish Sign Language does not exist. There is no evidence of any deaf community using it, nor any proof of its introduction to the USA. Instead, evidence points to the existence of old British manual alphabet, which was documented in a publication from 1698. This publication even suggests that the language had been in use since around 1689. Dr. Kitzel's dissertation also corroborates these findings, as it uncovered no evidence of Old Kentish Sign Language. Despite thorough investigation by a deaf historian residing just 10 miles away from the supposed origin, no evidence has been found to support its existence."

Peter R. Brown has highlighted the conclusions of recent studies, which suggest that old British sign language predates Old Kentish Sign Language.

In light of this information, we recognise the importance of relying on updated sources and current published papers to ensure the accuracy of our content. We are committed to revising the article accordingly to reflect these insights and provide our readers with the most reliable information available.

Once again, we extend our appreciation to Kathleen Aiple and Peter R. Brown for their valuable contributions to our understanding of this topic.


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thanks for info

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