A sawmill in the 1970s. (Photo: Tomas Sennett/NARA 545925)
When the linguists Martin Meissner and Stuart Philpott first started visiting sawmills in British Columbia in the 1970s, they thought they’d find workers communicating without speaking, probably with some simple gestures that contained technical information. There was a long history of such communication in the face of extreme noise: For centuries, American mill workers had used systems of hand signals to tell each other, across the unending roar of the saws, how to cut wood.
What they discovered, though, floored them. The researchers witnessed a sign language system complete enough that workers could call each other “you crazy old farmer,” tell a colleague that he was “full of crap,” or tell each other when the foreman was “fucking around over there.”
Outside of deaf communities, hearing people sometimes develop what are now often called “alternate sign languages” to communicate when words will not do. In monasteries, monks uses signs to communicate in areas where speech is forbidden, for instance. In industries where machines made speaking impossible—in ships’ engine rooms, in steel mills, textile mills, and sawmills—workers also found ways to communicate with their hands.