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
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.
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