Edward S. Klima, Sign Language Expert, Dies at 77

Kara Brown kara_dbrown at yahoo.com
Sat Oct 4 13:51:58 UTC 2008

October 4, 2008 New York Times

Edward S. Klima, Sign Language Expert, Dies at 77

Edward S. Klima, an eminent linguist who was one of
the first scholars to pay serious attention to sign
languages, and in so doing helped them win long-denied
recognition as languages in their own right, died on
Sept. 25 in the La Jolla section of San Diego. He was
77 and had lived in La Jolla for many years.

The cause was complications of brain surgery, his
family said.

At his death, Dr. Klima was emeritus professor of
linguistics at the University of California, San
Diego. He was also an adjunct professor at the Salk
Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego and the
associate director of the institute’s laboratory for
cognitive neuroscience.

Much of Dr. Klima’s work was done in collaboration
with his wife, Ursula Bellugi, a professor at Salk and
the laboratory’s longtime director. They were known in
particular for their long, painstaking unraveling of
the grammatical structure of American Sign Language,
and for using what they found to illuminate the
workings of all language, signed and spoken, in the

Drs. Klima and Bellugi received the American
Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished
Contributions in 1992.

Before the couple began their research in 1970,
everything known about the human language instinct
came from the study of spoken languages. Their book
“The Signs of Language” (Harvard University, 1979) was
a landmark. Written with 10 associates, it is the
first comprehensive study of the grammar and
psychology of signed languages.

More recently, Dr. Klima collaborated with his wife on
extensive studies of Williams syndrome, a rare genetic
disorder that combines mental retardation with
heightened language ability.

When Drs. Klima and Bellugi began work on American
Sign Language, few people considered sign languages to
be real languages. A.S.L., used by a quarter-million
to a half-million deaf people in the United States and
Canada, was widely disparaged as either a rude
pantomime, devoid of grammar, or a broken version of
English, rerouted to the hands. Deaf people were made
to feel ashamed of it. Teachers of the deaf tried to
suppress it, forcing pupils to speak and read lips
instead, no mean feat if one cannot hear.

Working with deaf informants, Drs. Klima and Bellugi
established conclusively that the world’s signed
languages — and there are more than a hundred of them
— are very much real languages, as complex, abstract
and systematic as spoken ones. In A.S.L., they found a
lexicon bursting with nouns, verbs, adjectives,
adverbs and pronouns; orderly grammar and syntax quite
different from those of English; indigenous poetry;
and even regional and ethnic dialects.

Edward Stephan Klima was born in Cleveland on June 21,
1931. He earned a bachelor’s degree in linguistics
from Dartmouth in 1953, followed by master’s and
doctoral degrees in the field from Harvard in 1955 and

By the time Dr. Klima got his Ph.D., linguistics had
undergone a seismic upheaval. In 1957, a young scholar
named Noam Chomsky had revolutionized the field.
Language, Dr. Chomsky argued, was not simply learned
social behavior, as scholars had long believed.
Instead, it was the product of an inborn faculty — an
instinct — unique to our species. Overnight, linguists
had a new mandate: to describe this innate linguistic

Hired by Dr. Chomsky in 1957, Dr. Klima taught at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining
the faculty at the University of California, San
Diego, in 1967. There, with his wife, he began to
investigate the biological underpinnings of a language
without sound.

American Sign Language was first described as a real
language only in 1960, when William C. Stokoe Jr., an
English professor at Gallaudet College, was roundly
derided for suggesting the fact. But if Dr. Stokoe was
right, his idea raised tantalizing questions: How is
sign language acquired by deaf children? How is it
stored in memory? Which side of the brain controls
sign language — the left hemisphere, where spoken
language resides, or the right, which controls visual
and spatial tasks?

To tackle these questions, Drs. Klima and Bellugi
stripped away the acoustic veneer of spoken language —
the consonant and vowel sounds on which it happens to
rely — revealing underneath the mental machinery that
drives all human language. Among their findings were

Like spoken language, sign language is acquired by
young children in regular developmental stages. Like
spoken language, it can break down as a result of
strokes or other brain injuries. And, remarkably,
despite its strong visual nature, sign language is
controlled primarily by the left side of the brain.
Sign language is language, Drs. Klima and Bellugi
demonstrated, and at a basic neurological level, the
brain knows it.

Their work is widely credited with helping American
Sign Language gain broader acceptance as a language of
instruction for deaf people and, by extension, with
helping kindle the Deaf Pride movement, which began in
the late 1980s.

Besides his wife, Dr. Klima is survived by two sons,
Rob, of San Diego, and David, of Florence, Italy, and
four grandchildren.

His other work includes “What the Hands Reveal About
the Brain” (M.I.T. Press, 1987), which examines the
neurology of sign language, written with Dr. Bellugi
and Howard Poizner.

Dr. Klima’s legacy also includes the entire field of
sign-language linguistics, a lively branch of
cognitive science with several hundred full-time
practitioners around the world.

Today, these researchers are vigorously analyzing not
only A.S.L. but also British Sign Language, Czech Sign
Language, Hong Kong Sign Language, Indo-Pakistani Sign
Language, Japanese Sign Language, Québécois Sign
Language and many others, research that just 30 years
ago was beyond imagining.

Kara D Brown
Educational Studies
University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC 29208


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