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Sign Language in the Seventeenth Century: Science, Literature, and Samuel Pepys

Thursday 21 April 2016, 5.00PM

Speaker(s): Kate Loveman (Leicester)

In 1666, Samuel Pepys saw a deaf boy skilfully report the progress of a fire in London by making ‘strange signs’.  The entry in Pepys’s diary is one of the very earliest accounts of sign language being used in England, and certainly one of the most detailed. This paper uses Pepys’s encounter to explore evidence for the development of signing systems in England and tracks the growing public interest in signing. From the 1640s, British writers published on sign languages as part of wider scientific research into language creation, sound, and communication with the deaf. Certain types of sign language subsequently began to feature in pamphlets, novels, and biographies.  Intriguingly, Pepys’s account does not fit well with dominant seventeenth-century ideas about the education of deaf people, nor with certain modern histories of sign language development. The implications of this episode have relevance for the teaching of Pepys’s diary and Restoration history on the curriculum today.

Kate Loveman is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Leicester. She works on the history of reading and information exchange. Her most recent book is Samuel Pepys and his Books: Reading, Newsgathering, and Sociability, 1660-1703 (2015). Other publications include a book on early modern hoaxing entitled Reading Fictions, along with articles on Pepys, eighteenth-century novels, and the introduction of chocolate into England. 

Location: Seminar Room BS/008, Berrick Saul Building, University of York Campus West