A commentary on: Reappropriation of Gendered Irish Sign Language in One Family


  • Mary Dyson




Barbara LeMaster’s article “Reappropriation of Gendered Irish Sign Language in One Family” in Visual Anthropology Review piqued my interest with its initial sentence: 

The native vocabularies of one segment of the Dublin deaf community (i.e., primarily women over 70 and men over 55) contain different signs for the majority of common lexical items examined (LeMaster 1990). 

From this I learned that there existed different female and male signs in Irish Sign Language. This intrigued me and led me to explore further, despite recognizing that I was probably out of my comfort zone. I would be addressing a topic of social history, through my lens of theoretical and empirical aspects of communication design. Curiously, I rejected a more comfortable choice of an article that uses an approach far more familiar to me: research analyzing the covers of introductory texts on cultural anthropology (Hammond et al., 2009). I am therefore acutely aware that the questions I ask about Irish Sign Language not only stem from another discipline, but also introduce different research methods. I also suspect that some of the issues I raise are covered elsewhere, either by LeMaster or by other researchers. This I regard as a positive sign of considerable overlap between our disciplines.

In the following commentary on LeMaster’s article, I start with a brief account of what I consider to be main themes within the article. This is not a comprehensive summary, but sets the scene for discussion points. I then propose some general differences in approach and emphasis between the disciplines of visual anthropology, as represented in this article, and communication design. Although I have situated myself within a particular sector of communication design (in the introduction), I have nonetheless tried to cover a wider field encompassing design practitioners and historians. From more general topics, I narrow down to specific areas that might inform, or be informed by, graphic communication research: the process of language standardization and dictionary design. The final section on signs moves us some distance from LeMaster’s study. However, personally, one of the most exciting aspects of research is forging links between apparently disparate areas of research, which might require a leap in the dark.