Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language

The Founder Effect.

Possibly getting a slam in on his neighbor island, Nathaniel Philbrick claims in his Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island And Its People, 1602-1890:

Unlike some towns on Martha’s Vineyard, whose original settlers moved in a group form England only to continue a longstanding tradition of inbreeding (with serious genetic consequences, which included deafness and hermaphroditism), Nantucketers began with a fresh gene pool collected from towns throughout the [mainland] Merrimack Valley.

Martha’s Vineyard.

It’s apparently true that deafness was extremely common on Martha’s Vineyard.  Wiki:

In 1854, when the island’s deaf population peaked, the United States national average was one deaf person in 5728, while on Martha’s Vineyard it was one in 155. In the town of Chilmark, which had the highest concentration of deaf people on the island, the average was 1 in 25; in a section of Chilmark called Squibnocket, as much as a quarter of the population of 60 was deaf.

The island even had its own sign language:

The ancestry of most of the deaf population of Martha’s Vineyard can be traced back to a forested area in the south of England known as the Weald—specifically the part of the Weald in the county of Kent. Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language may be descended from a hypothesized sign language of that area in the 16th century, now referred to as Old Kent Sign Language. Families from a puritan community in the Kentish Weald emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony area of the United States in the early 17th century, many of their descendants later settling on Martha’s Vineyard. The first deaf person known to have settled there was Jonathan Lambert, a carpenter and farmer, who moved there with his hearing wife in 1694. By 1710, the migration had virtually ceased, and the endogamous community that was created contained a high incidence of hereditary deafness that would persist for over 200 years.

By the 18th century there was a distinct Chilmark Sign Language, which was later (19th century) influenced by French Sign Language, forming Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (19th and 20th centuries). From the late 18th to the early 20th century, virtually everyone on Martha’s Vineyard possessed some degree of fluency in the local sign language…

The last deaf person born into the island’s sign language tradition, Katie West, died in 1952. A few elderly residents were able to recall MVSL as recently as the 1980s when research into the language began. Indeed, when Oliver Sacks subsequently visited the island after reading a book on the subject, he noted that a group of elderly islanders talking together dropped briefly into sign language then back into speech.

Oliver Sacks.

The hermaphroditism seems like a touchier subject.  In looking into it I found this, from Walter Pitkin’s 1921 book Must We Fight Japan? 


Anyway.  Walter Pitkin went on to write the bestselling nonfiction book of 1933, Life Begins At Forty.  

From a quick image search for “Life Begins At Forty”


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