Sign Language in Göttingen

(In)visible Life Stories - Documentation of the Live, Culture and Language of Elderly Deaf People PRO*Niedersachsen (Niedersächsisches Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kultur)



PIs: Annika Herrmann (Hamburg) and Markus Steinbach (Göttingen)
AIs: Jens Heßmann, Jürgen Wolf (Magdeburg-Stendal), and Christian Rathmann (Berlin)

The aim of this project is to systematically record, document, evaluate, protect, and analyze the comprehensive linguistic and cultural heritage of elderly deaf people in Germany by interviewing deaf people in Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. The project guarantees systematic data elicitation, the digital archiving of videos, professional annotation, and scientific evaluation of the life stories of elderly deaf people from a historical perspective including social sciences, cultural studies, and linguistics. This video documentation of sign language interviews is of crucial importance to understand the culture and language of a specific minority in our region. Due to the lack of a written system, individual life stories of elderly deaf people would be inevitably lost with their death, thus, running the risk of losing the culture and language of a whole generation from our cultural memory.

In this project, 16 deaf people from the age of 70 in Niedersachsen and Sachsen-Anhalt will be interviewed about various relevant biographical aspects using guideline-based structured interviews. In particular, it is the historical topics concerning East- and West Germany, issues about gender-specific differences, and the problematic social situation of a language minority that show the unique value of these life stories of deaf people. The experimental SignLab at the University of Göttingen provides an excellent basis for professional data elicitation as well as skilled data analysis. The data will not only be evaluated with respect to linguistic indicators that allow conclusions about grammatical and pragmatic aspects, language change, grammaticalization, and language variation but also about the social and cultural background of deaf people in Germany. These stories of the lifetimes of elderly deaf people thus also illustrate how history and society are experienced and handled by members of the deaf community.

These life stories video-recorded in an endangered language offer an invaluable insight and provide a corpus for pursuing scientific investigations in social sciences, cultural studies, as well as in the fields of linguistics and history. Apart from long-term data storage, the project will make selected video data available to academia but also to the public. Signed stories will be published on a trilingual barrier-free internet platform including subtitles and feedbackoptions to give the public access to this extremely precious cultural heritage. In addition, the data will provide the basis for a touring exhibition that presents selected examples of these stories to the general society.