Campus: CSU Long Beach -- February 6, 2004

Anthropology/Linguistics Professor at Cal State Long Beach Receives $74,482 Grant to Study Rare Form of Irish Sign Language

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Barbara LeMaster, an anthropology/ linguistics professor at California State University, Long Beach, a $74,482 grant for her research on a rare and dying form of gendered Irish Sign Language (ISL) that is used in Dublin, Ireland.
The 15-month grant enables LeMaster to finally continue the research she began some 20 years ago but couldn’t pursue until she managed to return to Ireland three years ago. She plans to return to Ireland in July and August of 2004 as part of this grant project.

“No documented language, spoken or signed, has as extreme gender differences as this,” noted LeMaster, a faculty member at Cal State Long Beach since 1995. “I’m interested in how different the two gendered languages are from each other and my work is focused on how the genders resolve their differences.”

LeMaster explained that in one segment of the Dublin deaf community, the native vocabularies for women born before 1929 and men born before 1944 are so different that they can impair communication on the most mundane topics. For example, women and men have different signs for such everyday items as cat, Monday, night, red, carry and so on. These varieties emerged from sex-segregated education at two residential deaf schools in Dublin.

The goal of the project, she said, is to isolate all female and male signs in an existing data set, then to identify intra- and inter-gender variants to determine the extent of gender marking in this variety of Irish Sign Language.

Documentation of gendered Irish Sign Language is important for a number of reasons, according to LeMaster. The users, particularly of the female form, are aging, and there are only a few native signers left to consult. Unlike other gender different situations, these gender varieties are the product of language socialization experiences that completely segregated females and males--as though deaf girls and boys grew up on separate islands.

Perhaps most importantly, LeMaster explained, this research provides foundational data for the future production of a dictionary of gendered ISL and for any current and future work tracking the dissemination of these gendered signs and their meanings over time.

Fortunately, the current technologies enable better ways than ever before to study, record and preserve this rare and rapidly disappearing language for historical, cultural and linguistic merit. “All the stuff I couldn’t do before, I can do now,” she said. With the help of computers, she can look at different signs for the same word at the same time. “It’s my goal to create a DVD dictionary of gendered ISL so that anyone may access it,” she said.

LeMaster, an expert on a variety of women’s and deaf culture and language issues, earned her B.A. in linguistics and anthropology with general distinction and high honors in 1979 from the University of California at Berkeley. She went on to acquire her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in anthropology at UCLA in 1983 and 1990, respectively.

Media Contacts: Rick Gloady, 562/985-5454,
Shayne Schroeder, 562/985-1727,

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