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The Collation

Stealing Signs

Thanks to everyone who shared their guesses on last week’s post and congratulations to those of you who guessed correctly!

Sermo mirabilis: or the silent language by Charles de La Fin, London, 1693. Folger call number: L174

The mystery image comes from an instruction manual on sign language communication by Charles de La Fin entitled Sermo mirabilis: or the silent language.1 A precursor to modern English fingerspelling in British Sign Language, this short, fourteen-page pamphlet promises the user that in the space of six hours, they will be able to master the alphabet with motions mnemonically keyed to their body parts. As you can see in the image, each letter roughly corresponds to the first letter of the named anatomical part (“B” for “Brow”) or a homophone (“I” for “Eye”), except for vowels, which are keyed to the hand.

La Fin’s primary motivation for writing this pamphlet is to impart a secret method for communication in plain sight, as the title page states “how to impart his mind to his friend in any language…tho never so deep and dangerous a secret, without the least noise, word or voice; and without the knowledge of any in company being a wonderful art being kept secret for several ages, in Padua…” With so much of the body employed by this signed language, which could be used to convey any Roman-lettered language, it’s hard to imagine the users maintaining any level of secrecy in their actions, even if the gestures’ meanings eluded bystanders. If a bystander had also read Sermo mirabilis, what would prevent them from intercepting the message? Publishing an instructional manual divulging a secret language presents quite a conundrum.

Aside from the lack of promised secrecy inherent in a publicly available book about signed ciphers, I have a feeling the physical rendering of La Fin’s body alphabet would look a little something like this scene from Penny Marshall’s classic 1992 baseball film, A League of Their Own.

In the clip, the ne’er-do-well figurehead manager of the Rockford Peaches, Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), and catcher/de facto manager Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) give competing signs to the batter Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh) in a battle of wills that Dugan ultimately wins and that leads to the Peaches scoring runs.

The secrecy of baseball signs has been an integral part of the game from its early days and owes its origins to American Sign Language. William Ellsworth Hoy (1862-1961), the most accomplished Deaf major league baseball player in history, is credited with bringing sign language to the sport (especially the signs for “safe” and “out” calls), leaving behind a permanent legacy to the game.2 As the game of baseball evolved, the game incorporated signing in other aspects of play. Part of the gamesmanship of baseball is each team’s ability to “steal”—some would say “interpret—the other team’s signs for pitching, baserunning, etc. to get a leg up on the competition. As baseball lexicographer Paul Dickson puts it, “because teams routinely try to steal each other’s signs and signals, coaches and managers communicate in a form of code with real signs embedded in a string of false signals created to throw the other team off.”3 We can surmise from the clip above that the “real” sign is somewhere embedded in Jimmy and Dottie’s movements—the whole performance is encoded.

Sometimes coaches take encoded signs beyond useful meaning. As New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel (1949-1960) once said, “I’ve got an ironclad system of signs. The other team can’t steal ’em—and my fellows don’t understand them!”4 In the late 2010s, the Houston Astros took sign-stealing too far, using the live broadcast feed in the dugout to steal signs—and, arguably, the World Series. No amount of decoy signs using catchers’ painted fingernails or coy gestures matched their creative, if blunt, banging their bats on a humble trash can to signify an incoming fastball pitch. To contravene sign stealing in the aftermath of the scandal, some teams have deployed PitchCom, an electronic communication device initially developed by magicians, which is now used by many teams to share the pitch call among players on the field.

Unlike the unambiguous signing of baseball umpires whose motions govern the game,5 PitchCom removes one of the important benefits of visible signs—a common language that allows people of different abilities and circumstances to understand them. Among PitchCom’s faults is that in games where the crowd’s cheers reach a fevered pitch, you often spy the pitcher pressing the microphone in his hat closer to his head to try to hear the pitch call. To me, this fault underscores the technology’s inherent exclusion of Deaf and hard of hearing people who otherwise could participate fully in the game.

Title page of John Bulwer’s Chirologia, 1644. Folger call number: B5462

Charles de La Fin’s secret sign language stems from the landmark work of John Bulwer, author of Chirologia and Chironomia (first published 1644). Bulwer was an advocate for the education of Deaf people and was the first British proponent of sign language. Sign language has a long history, with the first recorded mention of signing as a mode of communication in the 5th century BCE by Socrates in Plato’s Cratylus. We do know that sign language has been used globally for centuries and has been adapted to regional usage.6 Not only did Bulwer view signing as a means of educating the Deaf, but he saw it as a natural pathway to universal language that fell outside of the intentional confusion of languages that occurred at the Tower of Babel.7 Indeed, Bulwer’s work Chironomia argues that gesture enriches verbal rhetoric in a manner that words alone cannot convey—what is now referred to as “sign-gain.”8

John Bulwer’s Chironomia with “which gestures, besides their typical significations, are so ordered to serve for privy ciphers for any secret intimation” (L3v).

Even with his widely acknowledged advocacy for Deaf and hard of hearing people, Bulwer sees a secondary use for sign language in which manual alphabets could be “ordered to serve for privy ciphers for any secret intimation.”9 This allusion possibly sets the tone for La Fin’s appropriation of sign language to physically encode secret messages. Bulwer demonstrates the possibility for dissimulation in signing by foreshadowing another concept, “Deaf-gain,” which adds another dimension to social communication, the “unique cognitive, creative, and cultural gains manifested through deaf ways of being in the world.”10 In his tract Philocophus: or, the deafe and dumbe mans friend (1648), Bulwer relates the Deaf-gain of one Mr. Crispe, a merchant, who “might chance to overhear with his eye” (lipread) conversations at the exchange that could tip him off to the arrival of a ship or a good bargain, without the distraction of the loud voices and confused speech in the building that would prevent someone from overhearing the same information.11

From my cursory investigation of this topic, it seems the secrecy potential for sign language may have developed in parallel with its use as another form of communication in various early modern contexts. From here, I’m excited to educate myself on the development of different sign languages and their relationship to rhetorical gestures and secrecy through time.

  1. “DCAL History of BSL 17 Charles de la Fin or La Fin,”
  2. See Gannon, Jack. Deaf Heritage—A Narrative History of Deaf America. Silver Spring, Maryland: National Association of the Deaf, 1981, pp. 291–295; Edwards, R.A.R. Deaf Players in Major League Baseball: A History, 1883 to the Present. McFarland & Company, 2020.
  3. Interestingly, this source was one of the first search results in a library catalog search for “history of sign language” alongside titles on the metamorphosis of ASL and other sign language studies. Dickson, Paul. The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime. University of Nebraska Press, 2019, p. 6.
  4. Quoted in Dickson, p 7.
  5. Dickson, p. 2-3/
  6. Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, Massachusetts used a sign language developed on the island from 1694 (first settled 1644). According to Shaw, Delaporte, and Marion quoting Groce (1985), “a disproportionately large number of genetically deaf children were, born, raised, and remained on the island, and the entire population of the island used a sign language.” Shaw, Emily, Yves Delaporte, and Carole Marion. A Historical and Etymological Dictionary of American Sign Language: The Origin and Evolution of More than 500 Signs. Gallaudet University Press, 2015, xi.
    To start examinations of signing and gesture around the globe see Richardson, Kristina. “New Evidence for Early Modern Ottoman Arabic and Turkish Sign Systems” in Sign Language Studies, 17(2), Winter 2017, pp. 172-192 and Carayon, Céline. Eloquence Embodied: Nonverbal Communication Among French and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas. University of North Carolina Press: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2019, especially Ch. 2, “‘The Most Thorough Traitors and Deceivers’: Embodiments of Trust and Deception in the Seventeenth-Century French Atlantic” and Sherman, Claire Richter (ed.). Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. University of Washington Press, 2001.
  7. For the account of the Tower of Babel, see Genesis 11:1-9. Bearden, Elizabeth B. “Before Normal, There Was Natural: John Bulwer, Disability, and Natural Signing in Early Modern England and Beyond” in PMLA 132.1 (2017), p. 34.
  8. Nelson, Jennifer L. “Sign Gain to Deaf Gain: Deafness in Early Modern Manual Rhetoric and Modern Shakespeare Performances” in Performing Disability in Early Modern English Drama, ed. L.C. Dunn. Literary Disability Studies. Pagrave Macmillan, 2020, p. 254.
  9. Chironomia, leaf L3v. Chirologia and Chironomia are published in tandem, however pagination restarts at the beginning of Chironomia.
  10. Bauman, H-Dirksen L. and Joseph J. Murray, eds. Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014, xv. See also, Nelson “Sign Gain to Deaf Gain.”
  11. Bearden (41) quoting Bulwer (177-178).


Just: WOW! I cannot wait to share this with my undergraduate students. Thank you for this delightful and enlightening amalgam.

Naomi C. Liebler — August 2, 2022

Thank you for writing this Rachel! I do not know how I missed this posting when it came out! After giving my SALA summer camp students a silent lesson (lip-reading an gestures only) this summer,they ended up enjoying their new lip reading skills. They had never encountered a person like me who needs to lip read before. Thank you for pointing out the shortfalls of various tech. We all forget about inclusion in various ways, but deafness is not visible so it is often overlooked. Thanks again for writing this! I would not have guessed what the image was however! (ha!)

Dawn Kiilani Hoffmann — September 1, 2022