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February 10, 2004

Grant aids sign language research

From: 49er Online - Feb 10, 2004

By Sarah Thigpen
On-line Forty-Niner

For many people around the world, sign language is the only connection between their silent world, and others around them.

Because of the differences in culture around the world, some of the original versions of sign language are being lost due to the fact that the only keepers of the language, the speakers themselves, are old and dying. One of these versions is an ancient form of gender Irish Sign Language.

For Barbara LeMaster, an anthropology and linguistics professor at Cal State Long Beach, help is on the way. LeMaster has recently been given a $74,482 grant from The National Science Foundation. This grant enables LeMaster to continue her research on a form of sign language originated in Dublin, Ireland.

LeMaster, an expert of deaf culture, began her research of Irish Sign Language almost 20 years ago. Unfortunately, LeMaster was unable to return to Ireland until three years ago to continue her research.

As a result of this grant, LeMaster will be returning to Ireland in July in conjunction with her research.

No documented language, spoken or signed, has as extreme gender differences as [Irish Sign Language]," LeMaster said. "I'm interested in how different the two gender languages are from each other, and how the genders resolve those differences."

According to LeMaster, in certain sections of the Dublin community, the native vocabularies for deaf men and deaf women are so different that they can impair communications on the most mundane topics. This is a result of men and women going to different schools to learn the language.

According to LeMaster, the documentation of gender Irish Sign Language is important for a number of reasons.

"Unlike other gender different situations, these gender varieties are the product of language socialization experiences that completely segregated males and females," LeMaster said. "As though deaf girls and boys grew up on separate islands."

LeMaster does have one benefit that she did not have when she began this journey 20 years ago. Modern technology has made it easier for researchers to study, record and preserve rare languages that are rapidly disappearing. With the help of computers, LeMaster can look at different signs for the same word at the same time.

"It's my goal to create a DVD dictionary of gendered Irish Sign Language so that anyone may access it," LeMaster said.

This 15-month grant gives LeMaster a chance to complete the work that she began so long ago. Once her dictionary is completed, any future work tracking the dissemination of these gendered signs and meaning will always be associated with LeMaster.

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