Martha's Vineyard: Birthplace of American Deaf culture

Fascinating little tidbit that I ran across today: In 1854, 1 in 155 residents of Martha's Vineyard were deaf—compared to 1 in 5728 as the national average.

Historians trace those high rates of deafness back to a genetic variation common in Weald, England. People from this rural, sparsely populated region moved to Martha's Vineyard in the late 1600s, where they joined a pretty genetically isolated population, with few off-island marriages. The result was a high rate of this specific kind of deafness. That's interesting enough, but what's really amazing is how the genes shaped culture.

Until the 20th century, deafness was an unremarkable, normal part of life on the island—akin to the level of "oddness" or handicap we'd ascribe to left-handedness today. Pretty much everyone, deaf or hearing, spoke a local version of sign language, which made it possible for the deaf to be fully integrated into society without anybody really missing a beat.

Martha's Vineyard Sign Language is mostly dead today, but it has an important legacy. In the early 19th century, children from the island brought their language to America's first school for the deaf, where it mingled with French Sign Language and other colloquial home sign traditions to create modern American Sign Language.


  1. I read about this in Oliver Sacks book “Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf”. An older person on the island was asked about a specific person they used to know and couldn’t remember whether he was deaf or not. Sign language was so normal an occurrence that people didn’t seem to pay attention to whether someone was actually deaf, they just all used sign language every day.

    Another interesting book is “From Hand to Mouth: The Gestural Origins of Language” from psychologist Michael Corballis (recently Professor of Psychology at the University of Auckland, NZ) who makes a very convincing case for the development of complex sign language (not just gestural signs) in ancestors of humans before voice boxes evolved to produce speech – e.g. in Neanderthals (if you believe we are related)

    Perhaps there’s sign language in all of our histories.

  2. Thank you for posting this! It’s nice — and unusual — to see a (relatively) mainstream blog covering an aspect of Deaf culture that isn’t related to the argument over cochlear implants and other technology. The history of Deaf people on Martha’s Vineyard is indeed fascinating, and a very important part of American history that almost nobody knows about anymore. (Except of course in the deaf community!) Also that is an excellent succinct summary of ASL’s beginnings.

  3. I was at a screening of a friend’s documentary, and we were in the lobby discussing the film playing next door with some of the people involved. It was about deaf entertainers, many of whom are kind of like ghetto superstars: famous in their own community, not so well-known outside. I learned that there are also deaf film festivals. For those interested, it’s called See What I’m Saying:

  4. One way to examine the population dynamics and ancestry of deafness was to map 6-toed cats on the Vineyard. See Nora Groce’s work including Everyone here spoke sign language: Hereditary deafness on Martha’s Vineyard 1985

  5. Hello, I am a Deaf Interpretive Services Major at Tri-C in Cleveland, Ohio. I just wanted to say that, that was a great post! You got the main points of American Deaf Culture History down into a condensed well written version! I was astonished at the accuracy in your writings. May I ask where you found this information?

  6. It’s “The Weald”, not “Weald”. It’s not the name of a village, town or city, but a geographical region of Southeast England. The Weald lies between the North Downs and the South Downs, and encompasses parts of the counties of East Sussex, West Sussex, Surrey, and Kent.

    1. Yeah, bit like saying “everyone in Ozarks”.

      I was surprised that a 1-in-155 ratio would make everyone to speak sign, but the linked PDF says 1-in-4 in some places, which makes it more understandable, but still – it’s great they were so integrated.

      I’ve lived in several communities where at least 1-in-155 didn’t speak English, but most of the other 144 didn’t bother to learn even basic phrases of their language, let alone become fluent. Come to that, I’ve lived in 1-in-4 communities that were the same: they just self-segregated.

      (So, moving to Austin, I want to learn at least basic Spanish. Last time I was there, I tried to ask a neighbour where the laundry room was… and failed. Yes, they should learn English too, but it’s hard with little money and a fulltime job, especially if you can “get by” in your own tongue. I’ve been there, I know.)

      I should learn ASL, too. And Ruby.

      So many languages, so little time :(

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