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The Secret Sign Language of 1970’s Sawmill Workers were expressed through Gestures?

About three-quarters of their language overlapped with those of the British Columbia and the American Sign Language.

  • The history of sign languages inside American mills dates back to centuries
  • The language was also used to exchange bulks of technical information and instructions
  • The automation in industries drastically reduced the usage of sign languages among workers

“You crazy old farmer!”
“Full of crap”
It’ll be easy for anyone to guess that the above words must be that of a conversation between two high school hipster kids. However, pondering over the usage of ‘farmer’ would surprise many of us like it surprised the researchers Martin Meissner and Stuart Philpott when they visited sawmills in British Columbia in the 1970s.

Another fact of surprise is that the above words were not spoken by the mouth, but expressed through gestures and sign languages. As unbelievable as it might seem, the workers inside sawmill factories communicated with each other through signs and symbols as late as the 1970s. They were so well versed in the system that one could even tell when a foreman was “f**king around over there.” Not only this, the language was also used to exchange bulks of technical information and instructions on how to cut wood, and so on.

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Linguists and researchers Meissner and Philpott studied a particular factory where they found about 157 signs ranging from communication of their trade work to passing crude comments or teasing colleagues. “Ingenuity and elegance” of the hand signs struck both the researchers who were equally fascinated by the owner’s oblivion of the entire language system.

The history of sign languages inside American mills dates back to centuries. In the present day scenario, people often develop “alternate sign languages” to communicate what words cannot. In religious places, especially monasteries were talking is disliked between sermons, monks use sign language to pass important messages. In textile, steel or engine industries where noise predominates the surrounding, workers have always found ways of communicating through gestures or signs.

A lumber Industry. Image source: Wikipedia
A lumber Industry. Image source: Wikipedia

It was Popular Mechanics in 1955 to cover industrial symbolic languages with a record depletion in the practice. It was only in the 1970s with the findings of Meissner and Philpott that a particular factory was found to be practising the same. Mainly standard numerical systems were jotted down in a technical notebook, as the researchers noted in their study, “in the view of the management, that was about all there was to the language.”

Through the system, quitting time, lunch time, bets placed on games, or cigarette breaks could be communicated. The workers also talked about cars, wives, colleagues or joke about things going on without the knowledge of their bosses.

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“Big shot there,” as a worker pointed to the boss was interestingly noted during the study. Later, it was discovered that the boss was sitting with three women, one of who had a great figure, said the worker. The worker “then drew a rectangle with his index finger and pointed to the head sawyer’s operating cubicle, wanting to liken the woman he described to the calendar nude behind the sawyer,” the researchers wrote. “She’s my girlfriend,” he told the others.

Tapping the wrist was a gesture to ask the time, clutching the bicep to indicate “weak” or “week”, up-and-down movement suggested a woman’s breast, recorded the researchers.
The technical signs were generally learnt by workers within six months but to learn more linguistic terms for everyday conversations, was more the kind of thing among older workers. It was popular among men who were open to everyone knowing what they shared with their friends.

Machines replaced workers. Early 20th-century sawmill, maintained at Jerome, Arizona. Image source: Wikipedia
Machines replaced workers. Early 20th-century sawmill, maintained at Jerome, Arizona. Image source: Wikipedia

About three-quarters of their language overlapped with those of the British Columbia and the American Sign Language. Another linguist, Robert Johnson met a retired sawmill worker at Oregon a few years after Meissner and Philpott published their research. “When it comes to feelings, you have real problems…You can say you’re angry…But other feelings are so subtle and complex….”, says the wife of the retired worker who had gone deaf and used to communicate with his family through the sign language. The family had signs for mirror, shave, quiet, fish, church, etc. In case of difficulty in expressing emotions, his wife asked him to simply write down what he wanted to say.

During their study, Meissner and Philpott had observed that automation in industries drastically reduced the usage of sign languages among workers. Despite the practice of using sign languages in less noisy industries like those in radio stations, the system is rare to be found today.

-by Maariyah, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: @MaariyahSid

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