Carl Cronenberg, explorer of deaf culture, dies at age 92

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Carl Croneberg, a deaf Swedish immigrant who helped write the first comprehensive dictionary of American Sign Language and was the first to outline the idea of ​​Deaf culture as a distinct part of society and worth studying, died on August 11. . He was 92.

His death was announced by Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, the only university for the hard of hearing in the United States, where he graduated and spent his entire career. The university did not specify the cause or say where he died.

Mr. Croneberg was a new member of the Gallaudet faculty when linguist William C. Stokoe Jr. in 1957, himself recently arrived on campus, recruited him for his new Linguistics Research Laboratory. Until the late 1950s, many linguists had dismissed sign language as a poor substitute for spoken language, a rigid, imprecise system of gestures that left no room for nuance.

dr. Stokoe, hearing, believed otherwise, though he had gone to Gallaudet with no prior training in sign language and no real exposure to a deaf community — his specialty was Middle English.

Still, it didn’t take long for him to confirm his suspicion. During a crash course in American Sign Language, he noticed that the gestures he learned in class were sometimes different from what his students used among themselves.

The difference, he was told, was slang – and in that difference he saw ASL’s ability to be as broad as spoken language. dr. Stokoe focused on developing a script and from there a dictionary. But for that he needed colleagues with native language experience.

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He chose Mr. Croneberg and a second colleague, Dorothy Casterline, both young instructors at Gallaudet, not only because of their intelligence, but also because they were, in a sense, outsiders: Mr. Croneberg grew up in Sweden, Ms. Casterline in Hawaii.

That made it possible for them to both analyze the language in a way that Dr. Stokoe had no access to it, as to examine its use with a certain detachment.

Mr Croneberg’s assignment was to assess how deaf people use sign language in everyday life and across the country. He traveled through New England and the South, interviewing deaf residents and conducting ethnographic research, focusing on how language affected their lives.

What he found may not have surprised his subjects, but it surprised other linguists. He identified significant regional differences; for example, the sign for cheese was different in Washington, DC, and Virginia. Catholics and Protestants had different words for the same religious objects. And he found different dialects among old and young, and between black and white.

“The community of Deaf people using sign language and having more or less frequent social contact with each other extends across North America,” he wrote. “But the whole thing breaks down into local and regional groups that can be mapped geographically.”

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mr. Croneberg published his results as two appendices to “A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles” (1965), which he co-authored with Dr. Stokoe and Ms. Casterline wrote, and it became a seminal text among deaf scholars.

“Stokoe couldn’t have done the job without his colleagues, Carl and Dorothy,” Pamela Wright, who teaches linguistics at Gallaudet, said in an email. “It was a perfect blend of skills that came together to study ASL as an authentic language. Stokoe knew no signs, he was still learning, and Carl and Dorothy were his connections to the community.”

As a linguist, Mr. Coneberg saw American Sign Language as the core of what he termed “Deaf culture,” a term that later generations of researchers have built in across an entire field. And he was one of the first to outline Black American Sign Language as a distinct dialect.

In recognition of their contributions, Gallaudet awarded honorary doctorates to Mr. Croneberg and Ms. Casterline in May 2022.

“Deaf scholars like those before us today enjoy opportunities for a better life thanks to the painstaking research conducted by Mr. Croneberg and his colleagues in the 1950s and early 1960s,” the university said in announcing the awards.

Carl Gustav Arvid Olof Croneberg was born on April 26, 1930 in Norrbacka, a small town about 48 kilometers northeast of Stockholm. Deaf from birth, he was sent by his parents to a specialized school where, in addition to learning Swedish sign language in class, he taught himself English and German through a correspondence school.

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A chance meeting with Leonard M. Elstad, the president of Gallaudet, who was traveling through Europe, convinced Mr. Croneberg to come to America to study at university, according to research by Carey Ballard, a doctoral student of linguistics at Boston University. Mr. Coneberg arrived in 1951 and graduated four years later with a degree in English.

He was immediately hired as a junior faculty member while graduating from the nearby Catholic University of America. He received a master’s degree in English there in 1959, but despite high grades and the strong recommendation of Dr. Stokoe, he was not accepted into the university’s doctoral program in anthropology because the director thought it would be too difficult for a deaf person.

He continued to teach English at Gallaudet and in time became an inspiration to a new generation of Deaf Studies linguists and scholars who created programs and departments at Boston University; California State University, Northridge; and other institutions.

Mr Croneberg retired in 1986. The survivors include his wife, Eleanor (Wetzel) Croneberg, and his daughter, Lisa Croneberg.

The post Carl Croneberg, Explorer of Deaf Culture, Dies at 92 appeared first on New York Times.