Carl Croneberg, a deaf Swedish immigrant who helped write the first complete dictionary of American Sign Language and was the first to outline the idea of deaf culture as a distinct part of society worth studying, died on 11 August. 92.
His death was announced by Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, the only college for the hearing impaired in the United States, where he earned a degree and spent his entire career. The university did not specify the cause or say where he died.
Mr. Croneberg was a new Gallaudet faculty member when, in 1957, linguist William C. Stokoe Jr., a recent arrival on campus, recruited him to join his new Linguistic Research Laboratory. Until the late 1950s, many linguists had dismissed sign language as a poor substitute for spoken language, a rigid and imprecise system of gestures that left no room for nuance.
dr Stokoe, who was hearing, believed otherwise, even though he had gone to Gallaudet with no previous sign language training and no real exposure to a deaf community; his specialty was Middle English.
However, it didn’t take him long to confirm his hunch. While taking an intensive course in American Sign Language, he noticed that the signs he was learning in class were sometimes different from the signs his students were using with each other.
He was told that the difference was jargon, and in that difference he saw ASL’s ability to be as broad as the spoken language. dr Stokoe undertook to develop a script and from there a dictionary. But to do so he needed colleagues with experience with native speakers.
He chose Mr. Croneberg and a second colleague, Dorothy Casterline, both young instructors at Gallaudet, not only because of their intelligence, but also because, in a way, they were also strangers: Mr. Croneberg grew up in Sweden, Ms. Casterline in Hawaii.
That made it possible for both of them to analyze language in a way that Dr. Stokoe couldn’t, but also to examine its use with some detachment.
Mr. Croneberg’s charge was to assess how deaf people implement sign language in everyday life and across the country. He traveled throughout New England and the South, interviewing deaf residents and conducting ethnographic research, paying attention to how language informed their lives.
What he found may not have surprised his research subjects, but it amazed other linguists. He identified significant regional variations; the cheese sign, for example, was different in Washington, DC and Virginia. Catholics and Protestants had different words for the same religious objects. And he found different dialects between old and young, and between blacks and whites.
“The community of Deaf people who use sign language and who have more or less frequent social contact with each other extends throughout North America,” he wrote. “But it all breaks down into local and regional clusters that can be mapped geographically.”
Mr. Croneberg published his results as two appendices to “A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles” (1965), which he wrote with Dr. Stokoe and Mrs. Casterline, and which became a seminal text among scholars. deaf
“Stokoe would not have been able to do the job without his colleagues, Carl and Dorothy,” Pamela Wright, who teaches linguistics at Gallaudet, said in an email. “It was a perfect combination of skills that came together to study ASL as an authentic language. Stokoe didn’t know signs, he was still learning, and Carl and Dorothy were his connection to the community.”
Always a linguist, Mr. Croneberg saw American Sign Language as the core of what he called “deaf culture,” a term that subsequent generations of researchers incorporated into an entire field of study. And he was one of the first to delineate African American Sign Language as a distinct dialect.
In recognition of their contributions, Gallaudet awarded Mr. Croneberg and Ms. Casterline honorary degrees in May 2022.
“Deaf academics like those before us today enjoy opportunities for a better life thanks to painstaking research conducted in the 1950s and early 1960s by Mr. Croneberg and his colleagues,” the university said in announcing the awards.
Carl Gustav Arvid Olof Croneberg was born on April 26, 1930 in Norrbacka, a small town about 30 miles northeast of Stockholm. Deaf from birth, his parents sent him to a specialized school, where, in addition to learning Swedish sign language in class, he taught himself written English and German through a correspondence school.
A chance meeting with Leonard M. Elstad, the president of Gallaudet, who was traveling in Europe, convinced Croneberg to come to the United States to study at the university, according to research by Carey Ballard, a research assistant in linguistics at the University from Boston. Mr. Croneberg arrived in 1951 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English four years later.
He was immediately hired as a junior faculty member while pursuing graduate studies at the nearby Catholic University of America. He received a master’s degree in English there in 1959, but despite high marks and Dr. Stokoe’s strong recommendation, he was not admitted to the university’s anthropology doctoral program because his director thought it would be too difficult for a deaf person. .
He went on to teach English at Gallaudet and, over time, became an inspiration to a new generation of linguists and deaf studies scholars, who created programs and departments at Boston University; California State University, Northridge; and other institutions.
Mr. Croneberg retired in 1986. Survivors include his wife, Eleanor (Wetzel) Croneberg; his daughters, Lisa and Margaret Croneberg; and his son Eric.