A Language of Action

James Smedley Brown and his 1860 cartesian-based dictionary of sign language pushes back the timeline of the discovery of American Sign Language linguistic parameters one hundred years.

To be published in the upcoming (2014) proceedings of the Sixth Biennial Deaf Studies Today! Conference held at Utah Valley University in April 2014.


James Smedley Brown was a meteoric figure in mid-nineteenth century American Deaf education. Inspired by his wife’s familial deafness, he burst on the scene as an instructor at the Ohio Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in 1841 and, by the time he left the profession, had served as the superintendent of two schools for the Deaf, contributed to the emerging national deaf education dialogue, and pioneered vocational education in asylums and institutions for the Deaf in the Midwestern and Southeastern United States.

Although his professional career lasted only twenty years, his contributions were publicly noted by his professional peers and beloved by his students and their communities and yet remain largely unknown to history. Most notably, Brown’s two attempts at signed language dictionaries in 1856 and 1860 would be the first — and for almost fifty years, the only — published reference works on the developing sign language in the United States, pushing back the timeline of exploring lexemic parameters an entire century before Stokoe, Casterline, and Cronenberg.

Labels and Contexting

Parenthetically, for readers uninitiated with semantic conventions used in the domain of Deaf cultural studies, terminology and labels are lexically wanting but semantically rich and carry far more weight than can be properly communicated. In this paper, the historical terms “deaf-mute,” “deaf and dumb,” or “mutes” which Deaf people of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were regularly called, are analogous to the contemporary term “Deaf.” Though “deaf-mute” and “deaf and dumb” are, without doubt, anachronistic and offensive today, I maintain historicity here where necessary because the people included in this narrative used these labels eponymously. Additionally, “institution” and “asylum” are vestigial and authentic — yet now disrespectful — descriptions from a time when boarded education carried a different connotation.

Today, by and large, the American Deaf community uses Deaf not as an audiological designation, but a cultural and linguistic identifier, the way a person might self-identify “I am Chinese” or “I am Hispanic.” Viewed from the center of contemporary Deaf discourse, ‘deaf’ and ‘hearing’ function less as commentary on a person’s audiology and more as social labels. In this particular domain of research, then, this paper is less interested in chronicling the experiences of “old Uncle Josiah” or “Aunt Elizabeth” who lost their hearing later in life, but more engaged around those who were part of established American Deaf/signing communities and who espoused the use of a signed language.

And, while the modern descriptor “American Sign Language” or “ASL” has been in use since the 1960s, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, neither these terms nor any of their associated political connotations existed. The roughly historical equivalent term during this time period would have been “signs” or “the sign language.” The earliest attempts at formally naming American Sign Language don’t even appear until the late twentieth century (cf. Stokoe, Casterline, & Cronenberg, 1965 and Fant, 1972); contemporary to this time period of this paper, authors refer to the “language of signs” (Gallaudet, 1848), “signs” (Ayres, 1849), and “the sign language” (Rae, 1850; cf. Baynton, 2002).

In the instances where signed lexemes and their semantics are discussed, I follow the traditional convention of capitalizing an English word which is a near equivalent to the sign’s meaning (e.g. WOMAN or LIBRARY).

Family and Schooling

Born in Royalton, New York on 10 September 1819 to Nehemiah and Lydia (neé Worcester) Brown, James was the youngest of four surviving children; of the eight born to his parents, three sisters and one brother died shortly after birth or in infancy (Wood, 2012). Brown was the grandson of Revolutionary War patriots and renowned New England Universalist / Unitarian pastor Dr. Noah Worcester, Jr.

The Brown family moved from New Hampshire to New York in the late 1810s (Census, 1810) and eventually to the Connecticut Western Reserve of northeastern Ohio in the late 1820s (Census, 1820; Wood, 2012). James was closest to his older brother Rollin who survived adolescence; the two of them attended secondary and post-secondary schooling together, co-enrolled at the then newly-founded Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College).

It is still unclear where Brown graduated from university and received his teaching credentials although he initially enrolled at Oberlin as a summer term student in 1834 (Oberlin, 1834) and was listed as a preparatory (Oberlin, 1835), freshman (Oberlin, 1836), and sophomore student through 1838 (Oberlin, 1838); Brown also enrolled in 1837 at The Huron Institute (later Western Reserve Normal School) as a preparatory student in its Classical Department (Huron Institute, 1837). There currently is no extant record of his graduation from Oberlin or Huron/Western Reserve (Oberlin, 1909; Hoffman, 2012).

Introduction to the Parks and Deafness

Sometime in 1839, Brown met Theresa (sometimes spelled Terrissa) Maria Park, the third of ten children both to Elah and Elizabeth (née Moon) Park. In 1815, Elah had left Massachusetts to purchase land and settle in the relatively new Connecticut Western Reserve of northeastern Ohio; he soon became a prominent leader in the area, specifically in Avon in Lorain County. By 1819, Elizabeth’s father Abraham, along with his brothers Amos, Oliver, and Lodowick (sometimes spelled Lodowich), had also left Massachusetts to settle in Lorain County (Wright, 1916).

Born 10 October 1818 in Avon (Brown, 1873), Theresa’s pedigree would prove to directly influence her to-be husband James’ work for the remainder of their lives. Park’s oldest brother Plumb (b. 12 December 1816; Avon, Lorain, Ohio) and younger sister Alice (b. 8 June 1833; Avon, Lorain, Ohio) were Deaf (ancestry.com, 2009a, 2009b). It is likely that Theresa, though her siblings attended school one hundred and fifty miles south in Columbus, had some exposure to signed language and would have at least have a gesture-based relationship with her Deaf older brother and younger sister, uncles, and aunts.

Plumb, deafened at five months from “swelling under [the] ears” and a student at the Ohio Institution beginning in 1830, graduated in 1836 and took employment as a carpentry instructor at the school from 1838 to 1840. After a four-year hiatus, he returned to the Ohio Institution in 1844 and remained an influential instructor and member of the Columbus Deaf community for the next forty years, eventually retiring in 1883 and moving to California (Ohio School for the Deaf, 1898). His younger sister and Brown’s new sister-in-law Alice, born deaf, entered the Ohio Institution in 1843 and graduated in 1851 (ancestry.com, 2009b).

James and Theresa were married 23 February 1840 in Avon (Ohio County Marriages, 1789-1994), and they soon moved to Columbus, Brown taking a teaching position at the Ohio Institution for the 1841–1842 school year (Fifteenth Report, 1842). Brown’s new relationship to the Deaf-World was not limited, however, to his new bride and his direct in-laws. Plumb’s wife Charlotte Peck and daughter were also deaf (ancestry.com, 2009a) and Alice’s husband Martin Marshall Hanson, also a teacher, further strengthened the circle of Deaf adults around Brown (ancestry.com, 2009b).

Plumb and Alice’s deafness was congenital through their mother Elizabeth Moon; a review of Plumb’s and Alice’s 1890 federal U.S. Special Census on Deaf Family Marriages and Hearing Relatives self-disclosures indicate cousin and marriage relationships to at least five other Deaf families in Ohio and Iowa and possibly beyond (ancestry.com, 2009c, 2009d, 2009e). Along with his in-law families (and Plumb, who it appears to have helped Brown gain employment at the Ohio Institution in 1841), Brown also had exposure to at least twelve to fourteen other Deaf relatives. The Deaf community welcome mat rolled out and a position at the school procured, the Browns began their new life together in Columbus in the fall.

The Teaching Years: Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana

After three years of experience at the Ohio Institution, involvement in a professional teachers’ association in Columbus (Lee, 1892), and the receipt of a master’s degree between 1842 and 1844 (Eighteenth Annual Report, 1844), Brown was retained by the board of trustees of the newly-formed Indiana Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb to “take charge of the Institution” (First Annual Report, 1844) for the 1844–1845 school year. The Ohio Institution Board of Trustees recommended Brown as “distinguished” and “certif[ied in]…his success as a teacher of mutes, and his thorough qualification in every respect for the responsible station he proposes to fill” (Circular of the Trustees, 1844, p. 3-4).

In Brown’s first post to a school superintendency, he set himself apart by accelerating school campus building, increasing enrollment, and educating the Board about the cognitive efficacy and ability of Deaf students. The Indiana State Legislature appropriated three thousand dollars to procure land in Indianapolis for a new building which was completed in October 1850 (Seventh Annual Report, 1850). Following and replacing his colleague William Willard from the Ohio school in Indiana, the two grew Asylum enrollment from 35 in 1845–1846 to 172 in 1851–1852 when Brown left the school. Brown used his Superintendent Reports in the school’s annual report to educate the Trustees on the “happiness [found in]…a community of deaf and dumb organized for instruction” (Fifth Annual Report, 1848, p. 9) and the importance of trade education for deaf mutes (Seventh Annual Report, 1850).

In the autumn of 1852, Brown, considered “a gentleman eminently qualified, and occupying in his profession, the very first rank” (First Annual Report, 1853) was recruited by the new board of trustees for the Louisiana Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and Blind to assume its superintendency (Ninth Annual Report, 1852). Once again, Brown distinguished himself during his tenure through community involvement (Eighth Annual Report, 1860), building facilities for deaf students, and pioneering vocational education on school campuses, including the procurement of state printing contracts and a state-of-the-art printing press to be operated on the Louisiana Institution campus (Eighth Annual Report, 1860).

In 1860, he announced to the Institution’s trustees in the school’s Annual Report that plans to have students assist in printing a “Dictionary of Signs for the Deaf and Dumb” had already been proposed, “doubting that your Honorable Bodies will readily see the propriety of this being done by the press of the Asylum” (Eighth Annual Report, 1860, p. 7). Just six months later, Brown found himself the target of Louisiana legislative cronyism, an internal power- and money-grab, and impending antebellum Civil War sentiment. His honest efforts to bring both vocational and financial success to the campus put him in the crosshairs of newly-appointed Institution administrators who, despite initial reassurances to the contrary, removed him from his post in May. Just as swiftly as his extraordinary career began, Brown was forced out of his superintendency of the Louisiana Institution (Brown, 1860b) and, ultimately, his career in Deaf education.

Home Again

Defeated and no doubt exasperated, Brown, his wife, and two daughters retreated to the Indiana homestead they had purchased eleven years earlier while still at the Indiana Asylum. In 1852, before leaving Indiana for Louisiana, Brown had purchased 350 acres in southeastern Marion County, renamed his tract ‘Gallaudet Station,’ and “granted a diagonal right-of-way through his land to the Indianapolis and Cincinnati Railroad” (Hendricks, 1984, p. 472). Upon their return home to Franklin Township, Brown also served for a year as the Gallaudet Station postmaster from 3 October 1861 to 28 November 1862 (Hendricks, 1984).

Though beaten, after William S. Marshall, “one of [the Indiana School’s] most acceptable and efficient teachers,…tendered his resignation under a conviction of duty in the crisis of the country” (Nineteenth Report, 1862, p. 9), Brown was convinced by Superintendent MacIntire in January 1862 to accept a teaching appointment for the remainder of the school year (DeMotte, 1862). A year later, after executing a simple will giving “my Beloved Wife, Terrisa, my whole estate, Real and personal…in all things make suitable provision for my dear Daughter Emily…,” (Last Will and Testament, 1863), Brown died of pulmonary disease, fittingly, at Gallaudet Station on 10 June 1863 at the age of forty-nine (Indianapolis Journal, 1863; Indianapolis Sentinel, 1863).

Mid-Nineteenth Century Deaf Education and Rise of Sign Language Homogeneity

By the mid-1850s, while the centralization of the American Deaf community (especially in the Northeast) was arising with the formation of the New England Gallaudet Association in 1854 (Lane, Pillard, & French, 2007), a national debate was well underway among instructors of the Deaf over which kind of signed language had a greater pedagogical advantage.

With the founding of the American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb in 1848 by the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf and Dumb, educators had a forum in which to discuss topics of relevance to the professional field. Articles ranging from approaches to international deaf education and theological considerations as well as state institution histories and alumni listings were commonplace in the Annals during its years of publication. However, from 1848 to 1861 (the Annals were suspended from 1861 to 1868 because of the American Civil War), no topics were discussed more among educators of the Deaf than 1) the efficacy of colloquial (or “natural” signs) vs. methodical (or “systematic” (Fourth Annual Report, 1847, p. 19)) signs and 2) the preservation and consistency of accurate pronunciation of signs among teachers.

To wit, the first day of the 1856 annual Convention featured a provocative paper reading (and subsequent lively afternoon discussion) by Reverend John R. Keep, a professor at the American Asylum in Hartford. Keep’s presentation, ‘The best method for teachers to acquire the sign-language,’ argued that teachers of the Deaf should be “well trained in signs” (Porter, 1857, p. 8) and lamented that the first generation of American educators “were more distinguished for the clearness and elegance of their signs than the present”; they “considered the science of sign-making as of great difficulty and importance, and devoted themselves more zealously to the study of signs than teachers generally do now” (Porter, 1857, p. 8). Others agreed, and at least eight additional delegates suggested that teachers were learning “vulgar and awkward” signs from their uneducated students and that weekly inservice was necessary to keep signs accurately produced. Most convincing, however, was an address by Laurent Clerc himself, who warned teachers against learning signs from “ignorant deaf-mutes,” and not “allow[ing] themselves to be corrupted by them” (Porter, 1857, p. 9).

An observation of Brown’s efforts on his dictionary projects, however, indicates that he was likely already a proponent of sign production standards. Though he remained focused on school business during the 1856 debate, Brown rarely shied away from teacher activist opportunities, even participating in the formation of a professional teachers’ association while at the Ohio Asylum in 1842 (Lee, 1892). Brown was already well underway in the development and production of his next major work aimed at the promotion of “teaching the signs carefully to new instructors, so that each generation might be in advance of the one that preceded it” (Porter, 1857, p. 9) although it would be another four years before a version would come off the press.

The Prologue: A Vocabulary of Mute Signs (1856)

In an attempt to contribute a voice to the discussion and help create standards around pronunciation among educators of the deaf, Brown published A Vocabulary of Mute Signs (hereafter “Vocabulary”) at the short-lived Daily Gazette and Comet newspaper press in Baton Rouge in 1856 (Brown, 1856). His motive was simple yet informed by much of the discussion in Deaf education at the time about the use of natural/colloquial vs. methodical/systematic signs; Brown declared in the first line of the preface that “the want of uniformity in signs is a serious inconvenience in all Institutions for the Deaf and Dumb…[however] an identity of signs employed by the different instructors, is absolutely indispensable” (Brown, 1856, p. 3). Brown and others knew that, even though it would “promote the happiness of American Mutes, were the sign language of all the Institutions in the United States, not merely very much alike, but in all respects identical” (Brown, 1856, p. 5), as with other languages, that the ability for absolute consistency across all possible pedagogy and usage was beyond control, lamenting that, even in “the English language,” a sociolinguistic dictionary or lexicon was, as he put it, “still a desideratum” for users of English. (Brown, 1856, p. 3)

Brown admittedly began assembling Vocabulary as early as 1850 (“the result of much labor and study” [Brown, 1856, p. 4]), nonetheless, as a means to somehow provide non-Deaf instructors of Deaf students with a minimum canonical reference to the connotations and pronunciations of then-used signs:

“Its purpose was not to instruct novices in the sign-language, for its explanations being limited to brief phrases and catch words such as will be intelligible only to educated mutes and their instructors, were not explicit enough for that, but rather to bring about some degree of uniformity among sign makers, and to fix a definite standard of signs” (Fay, 1895, 168-19)

Inspired by the New York-published The School and Family Dictionary and Illustrative Definer, produced in 1841 by his idol, the Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and his colleague Horace Hooker (Gallaudet & Hooker, 1841), Brown considered the School and Family Dictionary “a valuable work, in extensive use in the best schools and academies of the United States” (Brown, 1856, p. 4) and duplicated its contents to inform the list of entries in Vocabulary.


A typical entry in Vocabulary was very short; to keep the reference at the shortest possible page count (“[had] a detailed description of the signs employed been given, this little vocabulary might easily have been extended to a thousand pages….” [Brown, 1856, 4)), each entry was limited to a single line or line-and-a-half long. Individual pages contained two columns headed by the first three letters of the first word in each column (e.g., “ago,” “ind,” “tau,” etc.) and entries contained extremely abbreviated references to a word’s

  • grammatical function (e.g. ‘v,’ for verb, ’n.’ for noun, etc.)
  • component glosses or English ‘equivalents’
  • unique connotations and/or parameters (handshapes, movements)

Comprehension of Vocabulary is dependent on both understanding the signs for the listed glosses as well as an obscure appendix (“Abbreviations”) beginning on page 47. “Abbreviations” listed one to three letter contractions for

  • prepositions (e.g., ad = “around,” ag = “against,” bm = “bottom,” ro = “round”)
  • adverbs (e.g. ady = “awkwardly,” dw = “downward,” int = “intensively,” repy = “repeatedly”)
  • nouns or locations (b-s = “blacksmithing,” carp. = “carpentry,” c-c = “coat collar,” fhd = “forehead”)
  • verbs (bt = “brought,” con = “continue,” ptg = “pointing,” tk = “take”)
  • grammatical denotations (f = “foregoing,” i = “intransitive verb,” t = “transitive verb”)

The two pages of abbreviations are unfortunately not only not comprehensive but conflicting in cases (one particular entry uses “1-h” to denote a one-handed pronunciation, but the list of abbreviations indicates that “o-h” should be used).

A few examples provide unique insight into mid-century pronunciations, Brown’s understanding of signs, and his intention to preserve their accuracy. The listing on page 25 for “humble” indicates a ‘simple’ (or single sign): “…a [adjective], th on lips, then bt d” (Brown 1856, p. 25). Vocabulary’s rather cryptic abbreviations defines ‘th’ as ‘thumb,’ ‘bt’ as ‘brought,’ and ‘d’ as ‘down’ (47-48), which makes this look like the pronunciation of the modern ASL signs for PATIENCE or a variation on SUFFER. The entry for “specimen” on page 40, however, indicates the intention to inject multiple semantic concepts into signs: “n fs of 1-h exe r-th and two fs tk one see” (Brown, 1856, p. 40). In this context, Vocabulary often offers more questions than answers.


There is much more discussion about the linguistics, composition, and structure of Vocabulary and Brown’s ultimate achievements with this work than will be treated here. However, Brown appeared to learn important lessons from his six years of work on Vocabulary.

Immediately, a twenty-first century ASL student will recognize that several entries highlight not only pronunciations but also Brown’s perceived compound structure of many 1860s signs. A comparison of how signs were written in both his 1856 and 1860 works shows that Brown (and other educators of the time) were learning how the nascent sign language actually conveyed semantics and salience.

Secondly, Brown found in Gallaudet & Hooker’s School and Family Dictionary a replicable and semantic template that would not only structurally inform Vocabulary but also his second and greater attempt at a dictionary in 1860. He also began to realize a basic genetic structure for dictionary entries — grammar definitions, abbreviations, etymologies, and sign parameters (movements, handshapes, etc.). As there are no contemporary sources of sign production from this time period, it is unknown how accurate Brown’s pronunciations of signs were, but as will be shown later in this paper, sign descriptions from his 1860 dictionary are also found in early twentieth-century signed films, which gives validity to their accuracy.

The Main Event: A Language of Action… (1860)

Brown’s second attempt at a dictionary would be much more ambitious and grander in scale. Where Vocabulary focused on a preservation of the lexicality and a basic semantic nature of signs as he understood them, his new venture would take him into a much more complex task. There is no evidence that Brown had formal training in the embryonic linguistics much less the philology of mid-century sign language, nonetheless, he ventured into conveying its morphology and phonology in his second work. Convinced that the sign language had become, as Laurent Clerc himself put it, “awkward…[and] corrupted,” (Porter, 1856, p. 9), Brown picked up the torch and dedicated a significant amount of effort to preserving the language birthed at Hartford.

Brown’s work was nothing if not timely — arguably groundbreaking — and spoke to the most critical issue facing Deaf education in the mid-century: the choice of what flavor of signed language should be used and promoted in the residential school classroom. Although day schools were slowly beginning to gain traction in the 1880s (cf. Van Cleve, 2007 and Reis, 2007), manualism and its residential/boarding school arena were still clearly the preferred method for Deaf education in the 1850s.

There is, sadly, no known academic discussion or analysis of Brown’s 1860 dictionary, but a close reading of an 1895 correspondence between Brown’s surviving daughter Emily Brown Robinson and the Indiana Deaf community newspaper The Daily Hoosier seems to suggest that she might have been unsure on which project he was working. A full-page article titled “A Dictionary of Signs One Made Fifty Years Ago” appears on page 3 of the February 14 edition and contains part of a letter to the editor about her father’s work. Robinson, who would have only been five years old when her father began work on Vocabulary, discusses his work on the project, recalling that:

My father did partially write a dictionary of the mute signs, in a large size, but did not live to finish the work. It was a source of great disappointment to him, as he said, not to live long enough to finish it. Some of it is in manuscript and part in printed form. What letter of the alphabet was the last, I do not know. It is not in shape to send it to you — and I do not think can be straightened out. He wrote a little vocabulary once and set the type himself. There were only a few copies printed, and I send you one with my best wishes. Although old and soiled, it is very precious.” (Johnson, 1895, p. 3)

The Daily Hoosier article replicated the text of several pages of Vocabulary in the article, including the entire preface and the appendix (called “Observations”), abbreviations table, and a selected list of entries from the book. Robinson’s recollection of Vocabulary is interesting, however, and, perhaps owing to her young age, actually appears to describe Brown’s work on his 1860 endeavor, not Vocabulary:

  • Vocabulary, published as a “little book” in 1856 (cf. the page size of the book) was not a “large size,” as she told the editor; however, the twenty-four surviving pages of the 1860 work are 25cm (10 inches) tall
  • Robinson said that Brown “did not live long enough to finish the work,” however, Brown completed Vocabulary in 1856; the first edition of his second dictionary was printed in Louisiana in 1860 shortly before his death in Indiana in July 1863
  • that the project was part “in manuscript and part in printed form” seems to suggest that the existing pages of the project may actually be the only completed part and that it was never fully realized
  • Robinson remembered that “[h]e wrote a little vocabulary once,” (italics added) implying that Brown’s first work was completed

Although there is no extant evidence for how he determined his new work’s ultimate audience, there is no doubt that he thought his fellow Deaf students and educators of the Deaf the primary audience for his research. However, Brown also considered a much wider appeal for this new project than for his work on Vocabulary, evident in the incredibly verbose but very specific title that he chose for his new work: “A Dictionary of Signs and of the Language of Action, for the Use of Deaf-Mutes, their Instructors and Friends; and, also, designed to facilitate to members of the Bar, Clergymen, Political Speakers, Lecturers, and to the Pupils of Schools, Academies, and Colleges, The Acquisition of a Natural, Graceful, Distinctive and Life-Like Gesticulation” (hereafter, “Dictionary”) (Brown, 1860a).

Brown was much more purposeful about assigning semantics to entries in Dictionary than in Vocabulary. In Dictionary’s preface, he mentions that the semantics in the entries draw from two sources: Joseph E. Worcester’s Boston-published 1860 Dictionary of the English Language and an 1860 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary, Pictorial Edition. Worked into the annotations at the end of each dictionary entry are quasi-cryptic numbers which coincide with definitions, “The expressions 1, 3, 5 : 2, 4 indicate the first, third, and fifth definitions of the word according to Worcester, and the second, fourth definitions according to Webster” (Brown, 1860a, p. vii).

Conventional wisdom among sign language researchers holds that Gallaudet College English professor William Stokoe first unleashed the possibility that a signed language could be described in a phonological and morphological framework in 1960. Along with graduate students Dorothy Casterline and Carl Cronenberg, Stokoe proposed a system for articulating signs in 1965 that introduced cheremes, or the parts that make up a sign, and primes, or distinct subsets of cheremes, chiefly handshapes, movements, and locations. Stokoe is widely considered to have “devised the first system for describing signs” (Valli & Lucas, 2000, p. 26), however, Brown’s Dictionary has been sorely overlooked in this domain of research. Well over one hundred years before Stokoe, Casterline, and Cronenberg, Brown envisioned a unique triplanal Cartesian morphology and coding and labeling system to enable, he hoped, subsequent generations of signers to preserve correct pronunciations. While no complete volumes of Brown’s dictionary are extant, the scant pieces that do still exist give users and researchers keen insight into the language’s aesthetics a mere forty years past Clerc, Gallaudet, and Hartford.

Brown likely drew inspiration for his ambitious work from personal heroes Clerc and Gallaudet and the national debate of signed language efficacy, and, from the lessons he learned with Vocabulary, had co-opted published works like The School and Family Dictionary to inform his book’s compositional structure. He appears to have largely worked alone on Dictionary; blessed with a wife with two deaf siblings (including his good friend, professional colleague, and brother-in-law Martin Hanson who was a student and monitor at the Indiana Asylum and whom he had convinced to join him at the Louisiana Institution [First Annual Report, 1853]) and a large number of extended Deaf family members, there is no other evidence that Brown had assistance from or collaborated with any of his various fellow Deaf school teachers nor is the mention of a dictionary present in any of his correspondence or discussions with his national-level colleagues. Brown’s own admission that he began concepting the Dictionary as early as 1850 seems to support this hypothesis as well: though he worked on the project for ten years, his daughter corroborates that he never finished it.


Brown proposed a Cartesian framework where sign locations — initial, transitional, and/or terminus — could be plotted, like mathematical formulae, on a dimensional grid. He imagined three perpendicular (x, y, and z) planes through and in front of the body and then divided them into meaningful sections. (Unfortunately, Dictionary is solely-text based and lacks any salient graphical explanation for its proposed system. This paper will attempt to use visual means to augment Brown’s written explanations.)

The Vertical, or X-axis

Brown divided and coded the x-axis (vertical) into eleven salient planes — five focused on head and neck physiology alone — beginning at a point marked by an extended arm (A, “the Arm’s length above the head”) and ending with a ground plane (G, “l[ying] on the Ground”)

The plane A is at the Arm’s length above the head.
“ “ H rests on the Head.
“ “ F cuts the Forehead at half its height.
“ “ V cuts the Visage or face at half its height, or midway of the nose.
“ “ M cuts the Mouth between the lips.
“ “ N cuts the base of the Neck, and rests on the shoulders.
“ “ S cuts the Breast two palms below the preceding, and is the plane on which more Signs are made than any other.
“ “ W cuts the Waist two palms below the plane S.
“ “ B coincides with the Base of the body, or its junction with the lower limbs.*
“ “ K cuts the Knees.
“ “ G lies on the Ground.
* Note. — If the arms hang down along the sides of the body, the plane W cuts them at the elbows, and B at the wrists.” (p. iii)

It is certainly curious that Brown chose to include anything as high as “A” (“[a]rm’s length above the head”) or below “W,” or the waist (including ‘base,’ ‘knees,’ and ‘ground’) as possible planes for sign production (with rare exception, signs are typically never produced even below the waist because they are out of a conversant’s peripheral eyesight) but he may have simply included them as necessary termini.

The Horizontal, or Y-axis

Brown then divided the y-axis (horizontal) in “palms’ breadths” (Brown, 1860a, p. iv) determined by Roman numerals, perpendicularly bisecting the center of the body at “C” (center). Whereas the X-axis had specific letters to designate planes (A, H, B, etc.), Brown’s horizontal numeric system was dependent on the placement of the numeral in the coding system. If “iii,” for example, was listed first (or before the X-axis planal letter, e.g. “4iii S 3v), this indicated a location on the left side of the signer’s body; alternatively, “iii” listed after the X-axis planal letter indicated location on the right side of the body. (See Coding System below.) Brown never indicated exactly in the coding legend the limit to which a signer might stretch his or her signs (…”and by the Roman numerals i, ii, iii, iv, v, vii, vii, viii, ix, measuring to the right or left…”; Brown, 1860a, pg. iii) but a scan of the extant dictionary pages shows that “viii,” or eight lateral hand widths (assigned to the pronunciations of “abominate,” “abstruse,” and “abyss”) was the widest distance Brown ever indicated in the first seventy-three words of the Dictionary.

Brown also recognized that a sign might not be pronounced only in neat, fixed widths, but also in “portions of a palm’s breadth” and this would be accomplished by “fractional expression[s]; thus i1/2 W indicates a point on the plane W, one and one-half palms to the left of the Central plane [Y-axis center] C. The expression, 3/4 S, means on the plane S, three-fourths of a palm to the left of the plane C” (Brown, 1860a, p. iv).

What is a “palms’ breadth”?

Brown never actually listed a fixed measurement for it in the Dictionary or any other writings, but a “palm’s breadth” or “palm” was a fairly standard linear measurement in the mid-nineteenth century and he used this quantification twice in describing both the Y- and Z-axes in Dictionary. Measurements of the late nineteenth century were not as yet standardized and still tended to follow anthropometric, or human-based, measuring systems which may have enjoyed popularity in the mid-century because of their use in Biblical texts. Indeed, the international inch was agreed upon only in 1959 (Astin, Karo, & Mueller, 1959). Given the wide variety of definitions for “palm,” (or “hand”) there is some disputation as to its actual distance.

Ancient Egyptians measured a hand/palm at 75 mm (or four ‘digits,’ the width of a finger, 1/4 palm or 19mm) (Clagett, 1999). Roman measuring systems were slightly different, and introduced both a “great palm” (~12 digits at 1/4 palm or 18.5mm = 9 inches, 222mm) and a “palm” (~4 digits at 1/4 palm, or 18.5 mm = 3 inches, 74mm) (Smith, 1851). Still other Mediterranean cities and countries used a “palm” for textiles length based on hand length, not width, which introduced variants from 182mm to 293mm (Hutton, 1815).

The most contemporary English usage of “palm” in the nineteenth century (also called a “handbreadth” or “handsbreadth” calculated the width of a human hand at approximately three inches (76.2 mm) (Mortimer, 1810). If Brown used this measurement, he was considering that signers would likely stretch laterally no further than twenty-four inches (609.6 mm) or two feet to either side.

The Outward, or Z-axis

Finally, Brown determined placements on a z-axis, “measuring forward or backward” (Brown, 1860a, p. iii). Similar to his Y-axis coding, the Z-axis centered on a plane envisioned in the direct front of the body:

“The Zero, 0, plane rests on the front of the face, body, and toes, and extends indefinitely to the right and left. Distances from this plane in front, are marked, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 : distances in the rear of this plane, are marked by the same numerals with a negative sign prefixed; thus, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5, -6, -7, -8, and -9. Thus, 1 H indicates a point on the plane H, one palm in front of the plane 0; and -4 S means on the plane S, four palms in the rear of the plane 0” (Brown, 1860a, pg. iii).

This configuration of a Cartesian system gave Brown a large canvas on which to plot the morphology and lexicality of the sign language of his time. Theoretically, Brown had described 3,564 whole cubic spaces (11 vertical spaces × 18 horizontal spaces × 18 outward spaces; not to mention thousands of additional fractional half- or quarter-spaces) which surrounded the body and could map where signs could potentially be placed. The next step in his system was to create a coding method and orthography.

The Coding System

Brown introduced his readers to his unique coding system first with two simple examples:

“…N v indicates a point on the plane N [base of neck], five palms to the right of the Central plane [that bisects the Y-axis]; while iv N indicates a point on the plane N, four palms to the left of the Central plane.” (Brown, 1860a, p. iv)

In the preface, Brown identified four potential locations that his Dictionary could display:

  • Single hand position on one plane
  • Simultaneous positions of both hands on same plane
  • Simultaneous positions of hands on different planes
  • Continued movement of both hands

Single hand position on one plane

The simplest of the sign positions, Brown defined a simple morphology for indicating a point in space: XL Y XR, where (from the signer’s perspective) XL represents the distance away from the Central plane on the left side of the signer’s body or XR represents the distance away from the Central plane on the right side of the signer’s body, and Y represents the single plane on which the sign is articulated. (It should be emphasized that this is only a point in space, not a sign pronunciation; a handshape and movement still would need to be defined.)

Simultaneous positions of both hands on same plane

Brown also needed a way to describe two-handed signs spaces, or two independent points on the grid and proposed a simple typographic distinction: separate two single hand/single plane point notations with a semicolon (e.g., 4v S 4vi; 3vii 4ii H)

“The terms, 4v S 4vi, indicate, the left hand placed on the plane S, four palms in front of the plane 0, and five palms to the left of the plane C; and, at the same time, the right hand placed on the plane S, four palms in front of 0, and six palms to the right of the plane C. The series, 3vii 4ii H, indicate both hands placed on H at the left of C; the left hand three palms in front of 0, and seven palms to the left of C; and the right hand four palms in front of 0, and two palms to the left of C.” (Brown, 1860a, p. iv)

Simultaneous positions of hands on different planes

When hands are moved to different planes, however, Brown used a different typographic distinction, listing the position of the left hand first, and then the right hand second, separated by a colon:

“Simultaneous positions of the hands on different planes, arc indicated by writing the numerals and plane letters together, separated only by a colon. Thus 5ii W : 6iii indicate, the left hand on the plane W, five palms in front of 0, and two palms to the left of C; and, at the same time, the right hand on the plane H, six palms in front of 0, and three palms to the right of C.” (Brown, 1860a, p. iv)

Continued movement of both hands

The last location coding concept that Brown created was intended to help a learner be able to reproduce longer and more fluid motion and move signs through multiple points. Brown again used a unique typographic conventions — a comma — to separate discrete movements on either side of a signer’s body:

“A continued movement of one or both hands, may be indicated by the numerals and plane letters marking the points successively passed. Thus: Carry both hands through 4iii S 3i, 3ii M 4i, 5i H 5ii, 6v W : 5ii C, means that the hands are to be carried from point to point, simultaneously and successively, as here stated.” (Brown, 1860a, p. v)

Handshapes and Phonology

Outside of the ongoing discussions of signed language pedagogy found in the American Annals between 1848 and 1861 (cf. Baynton, 2002) and even their focus on syntax, the state of sign language phonology in the mid-nineteenth century was largely in infancy. Along with creating his location coding system, Brown attempted to describe various handshapes that could be used in various spaces. Compared to Stokoe, Casterline, and Croneberg’s (1965) nineteen (“dez”) handshapes, Brown only identified fifteen shapes, several of them repeated with orientation differences (table 1).

Brown (1860a) handshapes
closed hand A
shut hand S
extended hand B
palm down
palm up
palm out (incline forward, 45˚)
closed hand A pronate
closed hand A thumbs up
extended hand B thumbs up
“the tip of the hand”?
Closed hand
little finger down I?
Curved hand C
Curved hand flattened C,
Thumb pointing up
Explanation of phalanges

Stokoe, Casterline, Cronenberg (1965) handshapes (“dez”)
A fist
B flat hand
5 spread hand
C cupped hand
E claw hand
F okay hand
G pointing hand
H index + middle fingers together
I pinkie
K thumb touches middle finger of V
L angle hand, thumb + index
Ʒ (3) vehicle classifier hand, thumb + index + middle fingers
O tapered hand, fingers curved to touch thumbtip
R crossed fingers
V spread index + middle fingers
W thumb touches pinkie
X hook
Y horns
ȣ (8) bent middle finger; may touch thumb

Table 1: Comparison of Stokoe et al. (1965) and Brown (1860a) handshapes (“dez”)

Viewing Brown through the lens of Baker-Shenk & Cokely’s (1980) four sign parameter (handshape, palm orientation, movement, and location) taxonomy results in enlightening discoveries. Though not terribly strong in handshape recognition, Brown was surprisingly prophetic in highlighting palm down, palm up, and palm “out,” or 45˚ inclined forward orientations (Brown, 1860a, p. v). He also recognized the beginning and terminals of sign movement with descriptors like “transversely” (left to right or right to left), “upward” or “downward” (movement along x-axis), “forwards” or “backward” (movement along y-axis), and “out” (palm movement along z-axis) (Brown, 1860a, p. vi). Where Dictionary excels, however, is in identifying sign location; it is apparent from his method that Brown valued and considered location — even granular location — to be the most important feature of preserving the accuracy of 1860s sign language.

The Entries

Sadly, only twenty-four pages of Dictionary are extant, containing just seventy-three words with one hundred and three pronunciations (includes derivative differences such as noun and adjectival forms along with active and neuter verbs) of words from ‘abandon’ to ‘accroach.’ A typical entry in Dictionary consisted of several boilerplate features:

  • the word entry itself
  • an identified part of speech (“grammar, etc.”) identified in an abbreviation legend (viii)
  • its spoken language etymology (Latin, Greek, French, or otherwise; also identified in an abbreviation legend [viii]) and any identifiable meaningful roots (e.g. ‘abandon’ was identified as Latin, ab, from and bandum, a flag); this appears to be a carryover from the 1856 Vocabulary which focused on identifying semantic parts of compound signs
  • a detailed description of how to produce the sign, including a reference to the coding system
  • a ‘rationale,’ or a visual etymology of what the sign iconically depicts
  • use of the word in an English sentence, often in poetry or literature

If the word carried multiple definitions, a given description of how to produce the sign was sometimes associated with a coding system reference. For the most part, the 1860 Dictionary word entry contents closely match those of the 1856 Vocabulary with minor exceptions.

Triangulating Brown

Of course, without other extant contemporary documents and triangulation, it is difficult to determine how accurate Brown was in describing 1860s sign language. Including Brown’s 1856 Vocabulary, there are few rare published descriptions of nineteenth-century American signed language articulation (cf., Long, 1909, 1918; Supalla, 1992).


There is rather enlightening evidence, however, in Brown’s description of the AGENT sign (Brown, 1860a, p. vii). American Sign Language employs a lexemic suffix that a signer can use to designate the actor of a particular activity (the sign AGENT); this sign often functions after the declaration of a verb:

“thus, by adding this sign to that for the verb serve, we have the sign for servant; to legislate, and we have legislator; to benefit, and we have benefactor; to law, and we have lawyer; to deceive, and we have, deceiver, etc. etc.” (Brown, 1860a, p. vii)

Pronunciation of this sign today appears as shown below, but in 1860, Brown described the sign’s articulation and etymology as:

“the personal sign [AGENT]…is made by placing the palms of the extended hands pointing toward each other 0i N 0i on the breast, tips of the hands nearly meeting; and thus carrying the hands down the front of the body to 0i W 0i. This sign owes its origin to the apron which an artisan wears, which covering as it does the front of the person, becomes a sign for the person. (Brown, 1860a, p. vii)
Robert P. McGregor pronouncing the AGENT suffix in ‘disciples’ in “A Lay Sermon” (1913) as described in Brown (1860a)
George W. Veditz pronouncing the AGENT suffix in ‘teacher’ in “Preservation of the Sign Language” (1913) as described in Brown (1860a)

In the 1913 film, “A Lay Sermon: The Universal Brotherhood of Man and Fatherhood of God” produced by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) as part of its “Preservation” series, Robert P. McGregor provides some serendipitous evidence to Brown’s AGENT suffix description. As he questions, in the New Testament, to whom Jesus was indicating should pray to God, McGregor signs FOLLOW + AGENT (“disciples”), and pronounces it congruent to Brown’s explanation in Dictionary. Even in the best known film of the NAD series, the 1913 “Preservation of the Sign Language,” as George W. Veditz explains the love that “friends and fellow deaf-mutes” have for the French icon of deaf education Abbe de L’Epee is because he was their first TEACH + AGENT (“teacher”), pronouncing it as Brown had described. A review of other like references to AGENT suffixes in the National Association of the Deaf’s “Preservation” series shows that McGregor and Veditz’s contemporaries also followed Brown’s pronunciation in their oratories.

This is significant because comparing and contrasting signs in Dictionary, the NAD Preservation film series, and modern-day American Sign Language provides rich grounds for research and potential video evidence in observing not only how signed language was pronounced a mere two generations past Hartford but also cataloging how signs have evolved to date.


In 1924, Indiana School for the Deaf instructor and editor of the Indiana Deaf community newspaper The Silent Hoosier John E. Travis lamented that:

“It was once thought that there could be no dictionary of the sign-language, as it is so largely ideographic, but we already have two such — the one by Dr. J.[oseph] S.[chuyler] Long of Iowa, and that of Rev. J.[ohn] W. Michaels, recently issued. Now comes another, by Rev. Father D.[aniel] D. Higgins, C. S.S. R, of St. Louis, missionary to the Catholic deaf” (Travis, 1924, p. 4).

In one of the only extant references to Brown’s 1860 work, Travis rightfully seated Dictionary in a rare place in American Sign Language’s linguistic and developmental history:

“There is still another dictionary of the sign language. Perhaps it would be safe to say the first ever undertaken — in America, anyhow. The book is now out of print, it was arranged, edited[,] and published by James S. Brown, the first head of the Indiana School to be designated Superintendent — 1845 to 1853….[T]here remains yet to be printed what should be put into book form, not so much as a dictionary of the sign language as the philology of it.” (Travis, 1924, p. 4)

Brown’s work on A Language of Action was, in the chronology of Deaf and sign language studies, one hundred years ahead of its time. It pushes the timeline of exploring American signed language lexemic parameters back an entire century before Stokoe, Casterline, and Cronenberg. It not only incorporated basic semantics for students and teachers to understand but it also deconstructed composition and skeletal pronunciation while also clarifying etymologies and contexting sign usage. Though tragically shortened and unfinished, better understanding Dictionary’s representation of mid-nineteenth century sign language provides researchers with a new tool for triangulating the evolution of signs shortly after their formation at Hartford.


Many people have provided valuable assistance to this work: thanks to Brandon Scates; Ted Supalla, Georgetown University; Edward Copenhagen, Harvard University; Walker Estes; Louisiana School for the Deaf; Elizabeth Dunn, Duke University; Betty Warren, Indiana State Library; Connie Swartz, American Philatelic Society; Sybil Hendricks, Franklin Township Historical Society; Frances Wood; Anne Leahy; Adam Schafer; and research librarians at the State Library of Ohio, Duke University, Gallaudet University, The Ohio State University, and the University of Minnesota.


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