Nova Scotia

How the deaf community is preserving Maritime Sign Language

People in the deaf community in Nova Scotia are documenting Maritime Sign Language on video, including it in plays and teaching it to interpreting students whenever possible.

'If we lose MSL, that means we are losing the culture, the stories'

Betty MacDonald shows the differences between signing numbers in American Sign Language and Maritime Sign Language.

The deaf community in Nova Scotia is rallying to preserve a sign language that's unique to the region.

Maritime Sign Language is still used by older people in Atlantic Canada, but it hasn't been passed down to younger people, who are taught American Sign Language.

Now, there's a push to document MSL before it's lost.

"The language itself has so many stories, has history, has perspectives of what's important to the community, what was important at that time — all of that is in the language," said Linda Campbell, a professor in the department of science at Saint Mary's University.

Ashley Campbell, an ASL-English interpreter, facilitated communication in both languages for the interview with Campbell.

"If we lose MSL, that means we are losing the culture, the stories, the perspectives, those will all be lost. And it's not a nice loss to have," she said.

Linda Campbell shows the difference between the sign for pink in MSL and ASL. 0:11

MSL is a descendant of British Sign Language, which was used in the region during the 1800s.

When Betty MacDonald attended the Halifax School for the Deaf from 1959-1961, and then the Amherst School for the Deaf for nine years after that, MSL was the language used.

MacDonald said students who came to Amherst from Montreal had never seen the MSL signs before.

Betty MacDonald attended the Halifax School for the Deaf for two years. She is in the middle row, second from the right. (Submitted by Betty MacDonald)

"The young generation today, they should be able to look at the history of the older deaf generation and also of the language, because a lot of them are not aware of it," MacDonald said.

Debbie Johnson-Powell was the ASL-English interpreter for the interview with MacDonald.

Documenting the language

Now, people in the deaf community are documenting MSL on video, including it in plays and teaching it to interpreting students whenever possible, but there's no formal class for MSL.

MacDonald does occasionally teach the language, but said it's difficult to find the time, which is another reason they want to make videos that students can access.

A number of years ago, the Nova Scotia Cultural Society of the Deaf was given a grant to travel around the province and film people conversing in MSL.

But those are now in a stack of VHS tapes and the community is struggling to decide how best to use them. Some of these have been posted online.

Another video featuring MSL was the 2017 documentary film, Halifax Explosion: The Deaf Experience.

"It's really fabulous to see first-hand storytelling in MSL of their experiences, it's very powerful," Campbell said.

Campbell said another project was a theatre performance about two friends travelling across Eastern Canada, one American and one Nova Scotian, and the misunderstandings that take place between MSL and ASL.

It was performed in Edmonton at the Sound Off Theatre Festival earlier this year.

Linda Campbell is a professor in the department of science at Saint Mary’s University. She also works on arts and culture projects in Nova Scotia's deaf community. (CBC)

"The audience was just laughing so much and we were able to feed them MSL throughout the performance," she said.

There is also a project to document the names of places in Atlantic Canada — an idea Campbell had after moving to Nova Scotia in 2011.

"There is no dictionary for the sign names of these cities and communities. So I would ask people, 'What's the sign name for this place?' And there's so many places that I couldn't remember them all," she said.

The interactive maps allow the user to click on different communities and a video shows the place name, some in ASL and others in MSL.

Betty MacDonald explains the role of facial expressions in Maritime Sign Language. 0:44

Campbell said that while the number of fluent MSL speakers is in decline, the language is still used to some degree in the community.

"So many people here, when they come to Nova Scotia for the first time, and they go, 'Hmm, they don't understand this dialect.' And it's because MSL is being used and it's been blended with ASL," she said.

Campbell said because there's no universal sign language, people in the community are skilled at finding a way to communicate even if they're using different sign languages.

"They're very talented in observing different languages and incorporating the language into their signing, and to support the learning process for other people that are not native to their language."

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