William Stokoe

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William C. Stokoe Jr.
William C Stokoe Jr.tif
William Stokoe, 1993
Born(1919-07-21)July 21, 1919
Lancaster, New Hampshire, USA
DiedApril 4, 2000(2000-04-04) (aged 80)
Chevy Chase, Maryland, USA
Alma materCornell University (Ph.D., 1946)
Known forRedefining language, establishing American Sign Language as a unique language, Stokoe notation
Spouse(s)Ruth Stokoe
Scientific career
FieldsEnglish, American Sign Language (ASL)
InstitutionsWells College, Gallaudet University
ThesisThe Work of the Redactors of Sir Launfal, Richard Coeur de Lion, and Sir Degaré

William C. Stokoe Jr. (/ˈstk/ STOH-kee; July 21, 1919 in New Hampshire – April 4, 2000 in Chevy Chase, Maryland), a long-time professor at Gallaudet University, was an American linguist. His research on American Sign Language (ASL) revolutionized the understanding of ASL in the United States and sign languages throughout the world and had a profound impact on deaf culture, deaf education, and sign language teaching and interpreting. Stokoe's work led to a widespread recognition that sign languages are true languages, exhibiting syntax and morphology, and are not mere systems of gesture. This work thus redefined "language" itself, and influenced thinking in theoretical linguistics, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, neural studies, and even jurisprudence.[citation needed]

Early life[edit]

William C. Stokoe Jr. was born July 21, 1919, in New Hampshire and died April 4, 2000, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.


Stokoe graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY in 1941, from where in 1946 he earned his Ph.D. in English, specifically medieval literature.[1] From there, he became an instructor of English at Wells College in Aurora, NY.[2]


From 1955 to 1970 he served as a professor and chairman of the English department at Gallaudet University, after being recruited to the position by his friend and former classmate Dean George Detmold.[3][4] He published Sign Language Structure (1960)[5] and co-authored along with Dorothy C. Casterline and Carl G. Croneberg, A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles (1965).[6] The former was the first place the term "American sign language" was ever formally used. (The fully capitalized version: "American Sign Language," first appeared in the Buff and Blue in October 1963.[7]) He also started the academic journal Sign Language Studies in 1972, which he edited until 1996.[8] He established Linstok Press, an academic publishing company, to facilitate the journal's publication.[9] Stokoe's final book, Language in Hand, was published in 2001, after his death.

Though the relationship between Stokoe and Gallaudet was not always one of complete support (Gallaudet closed his Linguistics Research Laboratory, wherein he carried out the studies that would lead him to declare ASL a fully formed and legitimate language, in 1984, after he retired), the university awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1988.[10][8]

Sign language research[edit]

Stokoe researched American Sign Language (ASL) extensively while he worked at Gallaudet University. He coined the term cherology, the equivalent of phonology for sign language. However, sign language linguists, of which he was the first,[11] now generally use the term "phonology" for signed languages.

Notation system[edit]

A passage from Goldilocks in ASL transcribed in Stokoe notation.

Stokoe invented a written notation for sign language (now called Stokoe notation) as ASL had no written form at the time. Unlike SignWriting, which was developed later, it is not pictographic, but drew heavily on the Latin alphabet.

Thus the written form of the sign for 'mother' looks like

 ͜ 5x  

The ' ͜ ' indicates that it is signed at the chin, the '5' that is uses a spread hand (the '5' of ASL), and the 'x' that the thumb touches the chin. Stokoe coined the terms tab, dez, and sig, meaning sign location, handshape and motion, to indicate different categories of phonemes in ASL. The Stokoe notation system has been used for other sign languages, but is mostly restricted to linguists and academics (as yet, no notation system for a sign language has gained significant use).[12]


Through the publication of his work, he was instrumental in changing the perception of ASL from that of a broken or simplified version of English to that of a complex and thriving natural language in its own right with an independent syntax and grammar as functional and powerful as any found in the oral languages of the world.[13][14] Because he raised the prestige of ASL in academic and educational circles, he is considered a hero in the deaf community.


  1. ^ Fox, Margalit (2007). Talking Hands. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. p. 92. ISBN 0743247132.
  2. ^ "William C. Stokoe". Gupress.gallaudet.edu. 2000-05-04. Retrieved 2012-09-10.
  3. ^ Maher, Jane (1996). Seeing language in sign: the work of William C. Stokoe. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. p. 34.
  4. ^ Garretson, Merv. 2010. My Yesterdays, Xlibris, p. 119.[self-published source]
  5. ^ Stokoe, William C. 1960. Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf, Studies in linguistics: Occasional papers (No. 8). Buffalo: Dept. of Anthropology and Linguistics, University of Buffalo.
  6. ^ Stokoe, William C.; Dorothy C. Casterline; Carl G. Croneberg. 1965. A dictionary of American sign languages on linguistic principles. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet College Press
  7. ^ Eastman, Gilbert. 1980. From Student to Professional: A Personal Chronicle of Sign Language. In: Baker, C., & Battison, R. (Eds.). (1980). Sign language and the Deaf community: Essays in honor of William C. Stokoe (p. v). Silver Spring, MD: National Association of the deaf, pp. 21-22.
  8. ^ a b "William C. Stokoe". Gupress.gallaudet.edu. 2000-05-04. Retrieved 2016-07-17.
  9. ^ Sign Media, Inc. "About Linstok Press". Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  10. ^ Fox, Margalit (2007). Talking Hands. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. pp. 109–110. ISBN 0743247132.
  11. ^ Eastman, Gilbert. 1980. From Student to Professional: A Personal Chronicle of Sign Language. In: Baker, C., & Battison, R. (Eds.). (1980). Sign language and the Deaf community: Essays in honor of William C. Stokoe (p. v). Silver Spring, MD: National Association of the deaf, p. 32.
  12. ^ Hopkins, Jason. 2008. Choosing how to write sign language: a sociolinguistic perspective. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 2008.192: 75-89.
  13. ^ Gannon, Jack. 1981. Deaf Heritage–A Narrative History of Deaf America, Silver Spring, MD: National Association of the Deaf, pp. 364, 365, 367 (PDF Archived 2012-04-24 at the Wayback Machine)(PDF)
  14. ^ Barnes, Bart. 1979. Hands Full of Words: Exploring the Riches of Sign Language. The Washington Post. District Weekly section (March 29, 1979), pp. DC1, DC10.


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