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Our Language Rights Canada Conference 2023 February 23rd Keynote: Beverly Buchanan

Photo by Sylvie Theriault on Unsplash

Maritime Sign Languages are a group of sign languages used by communities of deaf people living in port cities around the world.

The Maritime Provinces of Canada, including New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, make up the eastern provinces of Canada bordering the Atlantic Ocean. The Maritimes, also known as the Atlantic Provinces and Acadia, are isolated from the rest of Canada and the United States. The first European settlers arrived in the Maritime Provinces during the 1600s and brought with them their languages. As most of the settlers were from England, Ireland, and Scotland, English became the dominant language of the Maritimes, and English is still the dominant language. Some of the earliest settlers in the Maritimes came from Scotland, a region in Northern England. There were Deaf people also settled in Martha’s Vineyard in the southeastern part of Massachusetts, where a hereditary gene for hearing loss was prevalent among the population. Some of these hereditary genes also occurred in the Canadian Maritimes and the high density of a group of Deaf people became a catalyst for the development of sign language. These sign languages developed independently from each other and from the dominant sign language of their respective countries with more famous examples including Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) in Massachusetts, USA.

Maritime Sign Languages have their roots in the close-knit communities of deaf sailors and dock workers who lived and worked in port cities. These communities developed their own unique sign languages as a way of communicating with each other, as well as with hearing people who worked in the ports. The languages are characterized by their use of maritime terms and hand gestures related to shipbuilding, navigation, and seafaring.

The work of Beverly Buchanan, a researcher and linguist, has helped to shed light on the importance and unique features of Maritime Sign Languages. Buchanan has spent many years studying and documenting MVSL and NSL, as well as other lesser-known maritime sign languages around the world.

One of Buchanan's key contributions has been to demonstrate the linguistic and cultural significance of these sign languages. She has shown that Maritime Sign Languages are not just adaptations of the dominant sign language in their respective countries, but are in fact separate and distinct languages with their own grammatical structures and vocabularies. For example, in one of her research projects, she documented a number of native MSL signs that occurred based on videos created between 1995 and 2000. The primary purpose of such documentation was to reflect the most common signs of the MSL users. The research found a difference between how genders used expressions indicating that, for example, "influence" signs were more used by men than women. This difference demonstrated that the daily life experiences of men included involvement with the community and life outside of the home whereas women stayed at home.

Photo by Andrew Robulack on Unsplash

Buchanan's work has also helped to raise awareness about the endangered status of Maritime Sign Languages. Many of these languages are in decline as the communities of deaf sailors and dock workers have dwindled, and as younger generations have chosen to use the dominant sign language instead. Her research often highlights the importance of preserving these languages for future generations, and for the valuable linguistic and cultural information they contain.

In addition to her research, Buchanan is also a strong advocate for the deaf community and for the recognition and protection of sign languages around the world. Her work has helped to bring attention to the issue of language rights for deaf people and has contributed to the recognition of sign languages as legitimate languages in their own right.

Follow Beverly @BevJBuchanan

DAC Conference 2025- Houston Texas


Resources (education, interpretation, etc.) for MSL speakers are largely lacking, but a grant to the Nova Scotia Cultural Society of the Deaf produced VHS tapes documenting the language, and in the 2010s a project was started to document placenames in Atlantic Canada in both MSL and ASL and has resulted in interactive online maps. The language is recorded in a 2017 documentary film, Halifax Explosion: The Deaf Experience, and was contrasted with ASL to comic effect in a piece performed at the 2019 Sound Off Theatre Festival in Edmonton about a Nova Scotian and an American travelling in Eastern Canada

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