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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.

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A sawmill in the interior of Australia, circa 1900. Image source: Wikipedia
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  • 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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Would Nick Jonas Actually Want To Marry Priyanka Chopra?

if Priyanka Chopra would marry her American boyfriend

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Priyanka chopra and Nick Jonas looking forward to form a martial alliance.
if Priyanka Chopra would marry her American boyfriend. Pixabay

Many, many years ago, the doyen of Marathi-Hindi cinema V. Shantaram was told by his daughter, the actress Rajshri, that she wanted to marry her American boyfriend Greg Chapman.

Shantaram was at that time in the midst of pre-production for a film called “Boond Jo Ban Gayee Moti”. He stared at his daughter with disbelieving eyes, unwilling to accept that she would betray her father in this way.

“And the best thing was, Shantaramji wasn’t worried about Raj — her pet name — marrying an American. He was only worried about his film. He quickly told his daughter to do whatever she wanted to and signed Mumtaz to play the lead opposite me,” recalls veteran actor Jeetendra, a close friend of Rajshri.

Her last film in India “Suhaag Raat” was with Jeetendra who visits his pal Raj even now when he is in the US.

Rajshri’s marriage to Greg Chapman has lasted for more than 35 years. Once she moved to the US with Greg, she never looked back, never had a hankering to return. Theirs is a marriage that defies all cross-cultural scepticism, forging as it did an alliance that went far deeper than the passport could ever record.

Would Nick Jonas, a hot favourite gay icon in the US, actually want to forge a marital alliance with our Desi Girl?
Would Nick Jonas, a hot favourite gay icon in the US, actually want to forge a marital alliance with our Desi Girl? Flickr

I don’t know if Priyanka Chopra would marry her American boyfriend. I can’t see her giving it all up like Rajshri to make a life in the US, unless Priyanka’s mother plans to make Nick her ghar-jamai (house husband). Would Nick Jonas, a hot favourite gay icon in the US, actually want to forge a marital alliance with our Desi Girl?

Something tells me this relationship lacks the staying-power of the Rajshri-Greg alliance. I will tell you why. For one, Greg had nothing to do with show business. He had no clue Rajshri was a star in India when they met in the US while she was shooting with Raj Kapoor for his globally-shot fiasco “Around The World”. Raj Kapoor would later joke that the only good thing that came out of this expensive disaster was Rajshri’s marriage.

In my experience, marriage of showbiz celebrities work best when the spouse is totally detached from the entertainment world. Nick and Priyanka are on the same side of the celebrity circus. Not good.

Rajshri gave it all up for Greg. It wasn’t just love. Rajshri didn’t care a damn about being an actress. Would Priyanka be able to give it all up? And to be politically correct, let’s take the reverse course — would Nick be willing to give it all up and settle down in India?

I am sure Shah Rukh Khan would find a vacancy for him at Red Chillies.

While the future of Desi Girl’s bonding with the Firangi Munda remains uncertain, I am reminded of the most famous American to have dated an Indian actress. Hollywood superstar Gregory Peck dated 1950s diva Suraiya for a fleeting phase when he visited India. He was really taken up with the beauteous actress. But Suraiya’s grandmother didn’t see Gregory Miyan as a son-in-law.

Also read: Priyanka Chopra’s subtle reply when asked about her marriage

On the rebound, Suraiya had a long relationship with the Gregory Peck lookalike Dev Anand. Alas, that too was a doomed alliance. But that’s another story. (IANS)