can you find a visual alphabet for Martha's Vineyard Sign Language?
December 20, 2023 3:40 PM   Subscribe

I just discovered Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) and would love to see a visual illustration / graphic of the alphabet forms. I did some light googling, but I have no results yet, and very few spoons to devote to more in-depth research right now.

This is an example of the type of visual reference I'd like to access, but specifically for the MVSL alphabet.

Context: Friends are getting married on Martha's Vineyard this coming summer; it's a very special location to them; they have deaf family members; I'd like to illustrate some of the hand forms into art I will make for them as a wedding present.
posted by seemoorglass to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This book is not available for preview but you might buy it or use interlibrary loan to look for illustrations: "Everyone here spoke sign language: Hereditary deafness on Martha's Vineyard."

This page has an un-attributed photo of the type you shared. (

I have never been able to make links work on the green.
posted by ITravelMontana at 5:16 PM on December 20, 2023

The MV Museum might be able to help, shoot them an email or call.

When is the event? I know you'll be busy with the festivities, but if you plan to spend an extra day or two mefemail me, I live here, we can grab a beverage! or I can recommend places to stay, eat, etc.- at the very least bring the bride and groom around to The Barn, where I am the service director, so I can buy them a drink!
posted by vrakatar at 6:46 PM on December 20, 2023 [6 favorites]

Here's the link to the page that ITravelMontana mentioned in their comment, wherein you can see the cover of the book Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language.
posted by virago at 3:47 AM on December 21, 2023

Gallaudet University's archives only turned up Harlan Lane's genealogies of MV families.

I did find a transcription from the Vineyard Gazette contemporary with the publication of Croce's book. They host a mini-archive there, with several articles strongly objecting to the idea that people are marrying cousins and that's why there's deafness.
posted by Jesse the K at 12:17 PM on December 21, 2023

In the Vineyard Gazette comments, the article's author mentions that the first Deaf family came from The Weald in Southern England.

The Rochester Institute of Technology's brief history of ASL linked to Mary E. Kitzel's 2014 PhD thesis, "Chasing Ancestors: Searching for the Roots of American Sign Language in the Kentish Weald, 1620-1851".

British Sign Language uses two-handed fingerspelling. American Sign Language, which was strongly influenced by Deaf French scholar, Laurent Clerc, uses a very different, one-handed system.

Kitzel does not say whether Martha's Vineyard Sign Language definitely used BSL-style two-handed or ASL-style one-handed or anything else, for that matter.
posted by Jesse the K at 1:32 PM on December 21, 2023

The alphabet photo on the page linked by ITravelMontana is a generic stock photo with no apparent connection to MVSL. You can see the MVSL alphabet remembered by a hearing native speaker at 27:30 here:
It is similar to ASL, but not identical.
Notably, MVSL and ASL speakers had been mingling on the mainland for quite a long time by the time this person learned MVSL. The languages influenced each other, so it makes sense that they are so close by this point. Earlier versions of MVSL probably had very different alphabets, since it began as a mix of BSL and homesign.
posted by agentofselection at 6:25 PM on December 22, 2023

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