Throwback Thursday: When Martha’s Vineyard Had Its Own Sign Language

The island was once home to an isolated deaf community.

marthas vineyard sign language

Chilmark postcard via Wikimedia/Creative Commons. Illustration by Madeline Bilis

In the mid-1800s, one in 25 people in the town of Chilmark, Massachusetts, was deaf.

Since it was a time before American Sign Language was established, the small village on Martha’s Vineyard communicated in their own version of sign language. Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, or MVSL, was used solely on the island from the early 18th century up until 1952.

Chilmark has been called a former deaf utopia, and it can be traced back to one deaf man named Jonathan Lambert.

Lambert’s legacy was chronicled last year by the Atlantic. The story goes that Lambert moved to Martha’s Vineyard from Kent, England in the 1600s. After settling there, he had two children on the island who were also deaf. The town’s geography is especially important in the formation of this community—Chilmark was hard to get to (and hard to leave from).

The isolated village was filled with fishermen and their families. It took almost a whole day to get there from other towns on the island. People didn’t often travel to Chilmark anyway, for there was no reason to. The town had no port; no ships brought business there and no visitors arrived by sea. Chilmark’s inhabitants didn’t need to leave, either, so the village largely remained in seclusion.

This heavily impacted the small population, who married and procreated with only each other. Deafness was passed down from Chilmark resident to Chilmark resident, until that deaf utopia came to be. It was the ideal place for the deaf for one important reason: Just about everyone on the island signed in MVSL. Most residents had one or more deaf family members, so signing to communicate with both deaf and hearing alike was normal.

In a 1985 book called Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard, Nora Ellen Groce writes that hearing people even signed with each other. Children signed behind their teachers’ backs, churchgoers signed during sermons, and fishermen signed to each other from their boats.

As tourism grew and it became easier to travel around the island, the community began to shrink. The isolation Chilmark once possessed diminished, and a connection with the mainland was forged. Many deaf children from the Vineyard enrolled in a new school called the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, where American Sign Language would soon form.

Katie West, who died in the 1950s, was the last known person to inherit Lambert’s deafness. Since there are no records about the specifics of MVSL, the language died with West. No fluent MVSL signers remain today.