William C. Stokoe, Jr. (pronounced STOE-kee) (July 21, 1919 – April 4, 2000) was a leading educator of the deaf. Stokoe served as chairman of the English department at Gallaudet University from 1955 to 1971 and was a researcher there till his retirement in 1984. During his time at Gallaudet he extensively researched American Sign Language (ASL).
His work was crucial in changing the perception of ASL from that of an imitation or simplified version of English, to that of a complex and thriving natural language in its own right, with an independent syntax and grammar. By raising the status of ASL in academic and educational circles, he became considered a hero in the Deaf community. His work empowered the deaf community, recognizing that they have a culture and identity, that deaf people function as effectively within their society as any other people do in theirs. Thus, Stokoe laid the foundation for the recognition of deaf culture and deaf people as true human beings who, despite their lack of hearing, are capable of living life as fully and with as much value as anyone else.
William Stokoe was born on July 21, 1919, in Lancaster, New Hampshire. He had one brother, Jim, who was two years younger. He spent his childhood in a rural area near Rochester, New York, where his parents taught him the importance of hard work and education. During high school he was known as "Stubborn Stokoe," because he would sometimes argue with teachers about test answers and was known for his willful persistence.
William Stokoe attended Cornell University for his undergraduate degree. He always received good grades, and was awarded the Boldt Scholarship, as well as other scholarships to assist him in paying his tuition. His family was not well off, and he had to work while in college. He was involved in Cornell's ROTC program, as well as fencing.
He had a nervous breakdown in 1940 and spent some time in the camp hospital, where he was diagnosed as manic-depressive and given some medication. He took a year off to recover, and returned to Cornell in 1941. When he returned he received the Boldt scholarship again, was the co-captain of the fencing team, and joined the academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa. He never had another recurrence of his illness, but always found it difficult that he was not able to serve during the war.
Shortly after returning to Cornell, Stokoe met Ruth Palmeter, who was also a Cornell student. They were married in November of 1942, and Ruth was a great force of stability during difficult times. William's brother Jim died in December of 1942, and this was a very hard time as the two were very close. For a short time, William and Ruth assisted with the family farm, but left for graduate school at Cornell in 1943. William and Ruth had two children: Helen Marie Stokoe, born in 1947, and James Stafford Stokoe, born in 1951. In her later years, Ruth became ill with Alzheimer's disease, and William cared for her.
Stokoe taught English at Wells College after graduating from Cornell. In 1955, he was invited by one of his oldest friends from Cornell, George Detmold, to teach English at Gallaudet University. During this time Gallaudet was undergoing major curriculum improvements and Detmold's task was to get Gallaudet accredited. Stokoe's acceptance of this offer was a great benefit for Gallaudet College, as there were few professors with doctoral degrees teaching there at the time.
Stokoe arrived at Gallaudet in 1955. He had no training in sign language when he arrived at the college. His only previous experience with the deaf had been a blacksmith in his hometown who communicated by writing, and this had been a positive experience. He was unexposed to the negative views of sign language and the deaf that were prevalent at Gallaudet and elsewhere at this time. His specialty was Middle and Old English, particularly Chaucer, and he continued to publish literary articles when he first arrived at Gallaudet. He was known for practicing Scottish bagpipes on campus where no one would have to hear him.
Detmold encouraged Stokoe in his studies of sign language. Gallaudet was accredited in 1957, and William Stokoe spent that summer working with two well-known linguists. Stokoe proposed that the deaf share a culture different from American culture, and that their gestural sign language was, in fact, a language. When school resumed at Gallaudet in the fall, William Stokoe continued to study sign language and was faced with confusion and opposition from deaf and hearing faculty and students because he was challenging the status quo. He became frustrated with resistance to change and was stubborn in having his views and studies heard and acknowledged. His ties to Detmold, his lack of camaraderie with other professors at Gallaudet, and the fact that he was an outsider to the deaf community were all reasons he was resented by some. However, these were also conditions that helped him to see things differently than others did. Stokoe was highly focused on his efforts and had difficulty understanding why others at Gallaudet were not equally intrigued. Stokoe had little time or tolerance for those who were not open to his research, and could be difficult to work with. He had an innate and unusual curiosity that propelled him forward in his research. In the first few years of his research and publishing he found more acceptance outside Gallaudet than at the school for the deaf. Slowly people in deaf academia began to realize the value in Stokoe's work as well, but it took several decades for major changes at Gallaudet to actually take place.
Stokoe first published Sign Language Structure in 1960. It included a history of sign language, explained his transcription method, and utilized a detailed linguistic process. After its publication, he was given a grant by the National Science Foundation to continue to study sign language. He was asked to speak regarding his efforts in both the United States and Europe. He wrote numerous essays, articles and books on what he had learned in studying deaf culture and language.
After some administrative changes at Gallaudet in 1971, Stokoe was replaced as chairman of the English department and a laboratory was created for him. Stokoe focused on the Linguistics Research Lab and taught one English class each semester. He established an open culture for research and was able to attract notable linguists and researchers from throughout the country, where they accomplished cutting-edge research in the field of sign-language linguistics. Stokoe took over the editing and publishing of the journal Sign Language Studies when it was discontinued by its former publisher, and in 1972 he started the newsletter Signs for our Times.
He was honored at the 1980 convention of the National Association of the Deaf with a special book of essays by people who had worked closely with or been influenced by him and his work. In May 1988 he was presented with an honorary degree from Gallaudet University by I. King Jordan, Gallaudet's first deaf president.
Stokoe retired in 1984. He continued editing the journal Sign Language Studies, writing books, and lecturing. He served on a task force on deaf studies and ASL at Gallaudet in 1993.
William Stokoe died on April 4, 2000, in Chevy Chase, Maryland from a long illness.
Shortly after his arrival at Gallaudet University, William Stokoe began learning sign language, also called "manual communication" at the time. Signing did not come easily to Stokoe, and while he learned to sign, he never became a great signer. In noticing deaf people sign with each other, Stokoe began to realize that they communicated in what appeared to be an actual language. The word order and the sentence structure was different from a manually coded system for English, yet deaf signers were able to communicate with one another perfectly well. Although he had no formal training in linguistics, he soon discovered that sign language had its own set of rules and language structure that differed from English, but yet appeared to be a true language. These ideas contradicted what the experts and the deaf believed about sign language at the time: that it was an imitation of English and therefore inferior.
William Stokoe brilliantly enlisted the help of deaf people who were willing to collaborate with him. Together with Carl Cronenberg and Dorothy Casterline, he wrote the first sign language dictionary, A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles. It was during this time he first began to refer to sign language not just as sign language or manual communication, but as "American Sign Language" or ASL. This ground-breaking dictionary listed signs and explained their meanings and usage, and gave a linguistic analysis of the parts of each sign.
Stokoe invented a written notation for sign language (now called Stokoe notation) as ASL had no written form at the time. Unlike SignWriting, which was developed later, it is not pictographic, but draws heavily on the Latin alphabet. For example, the written form of the sign for the 'mother' looks like U5x. The 'U' indicates that it is signed at the chin, the '5' that is uses a spread hand (the '5' of ASL), and the 'x' that the thumb touches the chin. Stokoe coined the terms tab, dez, and sig, meaning sign location, handshape, and motion, to indicate different categories of phonemes in ASL. Some argued his use of technical terminology made his ideas more difficult to understand. The Stokoe notation system has been used for other sign languages, but is mostly restricted to linguists and academics.
William Stokoe was a person of grand ideas, who was always learning, even if being criticized, and was a remarkable observer of people. The goal that guided his research throughout his career was the improvement of deaf education. While he found linguistic discoveries and the study of deaf culture fascinating, he knew this was meaningless unless it was used to actually help deaf students succeed.
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