Carl Croneberg, Gallaudet professor exploring ‘deaf culture’, dies at 92

In the early 1960s, a deaf scholar from Gallaudet University, Carl Croneberg, traveled from New England to the Deep South to study how sign language was used in daily life. Above all, he expected to explore how gestures and movements were learned and transmitted.

What the Swedish-born Croneberg also observed was startling variety in sign language as well as spoken communication: regional expressions, idioms and even different slang among black and white American Sign Language users. , or ASL.

“The whole thing breaks down into local and regional groups that can be mapped geographically,” Croneberg wrote.

How America Developed Two Sign Languages, One White and One Black

Her work would be part of a seminal book in 1965, “A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles,” with pioneering Gallaudet linguist William Stokoe and Dorothy Casterline, a deaf colleague at Gallaudet, America’s only university for deaf or deaf students. hard of hearing. The nearly 400-page volume broke new ground by cataloging the signs in a way that the deaf community broadly perceives them—by movement, form, and gestural nuance—rather than alphabetically in spoken translations.

Mr. Croneberg, who died Aug. 7 at age 92, drew on new approaches to ASL studies in the 1960s to help fundamentally change perceptions of the deaf community. In the dictionary, he coined the phrase “deaf culture” as having its own linguistic richness and distinctiveness, including a distinct dialect now known as Black American Sign Language with distinct syntax, vocabulary, and patterns. unique hands.

The gradual acceptance of deaf culture opened the way to new areas of scientific research and helped to change long-held impressions of sign language as an awkward and imprecise form of communication. Decades later, sign language is now a common feature of political events and part of many higher education language departments.

“The dictionary sparked a shift in consciousness by declaring ASL a viable language and identifying many of the cultural characteristics of its users,” wrote James L. Cherney, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada in Reno, in the academic journal Argumentation. and Advocacy in 1999.

“Until now,” he continued, “ASL was mistakenly considered a signed version of English or a coded version of another spoken language and was generally considered inferior to other languages. “

Carl Gustav Arvid Olof Croneberg was born on April 26, 1930 in Norrbärke, Sweden, about 100 miles northwest of Stockholm. He had repeated bouts of ear infections as a child and lost his hearing before he was a teenager, his daughter, Lisa Croneberg, said. He was fluent in spoken Swedish and attended school to learn Swedish Sign Language. Later, through correspondence courses, he became proficient in written English and German.

Gallaudet president Leonard M. Elstad met Mr. Croneberg in the early 1950s and suggested he attend college. He graduated in 1955 with a degree in English. At the same time, Mr. Croneberg was fluent in ASL.

A national museum about – but not just for – the deaf community

He joined the faculty of the Catholic University while taking graduate courses, earning a master’s degree in English in 1959. He was, however, advised not to apply for the Catholic doctoral program in anthropology, as the university thought that the lessons were too difficult for a hearing-impaired person. , according to an honorary Gallaudet degree awarded to Mr. Croneberg earlier this year.

He returned to teach English at Gallaudet, where he would begin his long collaboration with Stokoe, a non-deaf teacher whose first academic specialty was Medieval Middle English but who became fascinated with the intricacies of sign language after joining the Gallaudet faculty in the late 1950s.

While learning ASL, Stokoe noticed that the signs in the classroom were often different from those he saw used by students. He suspected that ASL, like any language, had its own patois and vernacular, despite the prevailing scientific perception at the time that various sign languages ​​used around the world for centuries were simplistic and mostly utilitarian.

“It was Stokoe’s genius to see and prove that it wasn’t; that it satisfied all the linguistic criteria of an authentic language, in its lexicon and syntax, its ability to generate an infinite number of propositions,” neurologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote in his 1989 book, “Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf.”

Stokoe turned to Mr. Croneberg and Casterline as his research emissaries in the deaf community. The main ideas then took shape for the dictionary – which sets out to analyze sign languages ​​through aspects such as dez (shape of the hand), tab (location) and sig (movement). In an appendix, Croneberg offered the first known published analysis of Black American Sign Language.

Different sign languages, such as French, Japanese or others, are not mutually comprehensible. ASL, which is also used in some countries in Africa and elsewhere, is the most common second language in other places.

Mr. Croneberg retired from Gallaudet in 1986. In addition to his daughter, of Evanston, Illinois, survivors include his 61-year-old wife, Eleanor Wetzel Croneberg of Silver Spring, Md., two other children, Margaret Guthrie of Silver Spring and Eric Croneberg of Springfield, Ohio; and seven grandchildren. Mr Croneberg died at a hospice in Rockville, Maryland, his family said. No cause was given.

In May, Mr. Croneberg and Casterline received honorary doctorates from Gallaudet.

The citation praised them for “affirming that sign language was a real language, contained complexity, structure and syntax, and was not limited to being a form of pantomime, as it was commonly known. considered by linguists at the time – and many deaf as well.”

“To those skeptics who clung to outdated opinions,” he added, “Mr. Croneberg has always remained a strong advocate for the native language and its variants of the global deaf community.

About Norma Wade

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