Julius Hirn

Nordic Sign Language

As a hearing child of Deaf parents, Julius Hirn (1868–1914) was familiar with the Deaf world and sign language from an early age. His parents were Fritz and Maria Hirn. Julius Hirn worked as a journalist in several acknowledged newspapers, e.g. Nya Pressen and Hufvudstadsbladet, and used his position to write about the Deaf issues also for the hearing audience. He was one of the founding members of the Helsinki Deaf Club and the Finnish Association of the Deaf, and also their first chairman. He had a central role in many of the important projects in the Deaf history.

Julius Hirn was a liberal and a true humanist who opposed all coercive means, unsubtle thinking and political hostility. Julius was well-known by his fleshy appearance, yet elusive and resilient thinking.

The Nordic Congress in Copenhagen, 1907

Many sign language advocates got worried of the state of sign language in the end of the 1800′s, with the rise of oralism. In those days, all sign languages were considered as dialects of one, universal, sign language. Hence, the discussion of unifying sign language in the early 1900′s got international dimensions.

Julius Hirn had proposed developing an international sign language already in the Paris Congress in 1900. In 1907, the first Nordic Congress of the Deaf was organised in Copenhagen. From Hirn’s initiative, the congress decided to found a commission to investigate possibilities of developing a Nordic sign language. The participants were to collect photographs of the signs used in their country in order to gather material for the commission. Finland sent a collection of about 450 photographs to Denmark.

Sign language dictionary

Fritz and Julius Hirn started editing a sign language dictionary of the photographs but only 344 of the original plan of 1000 signs were realised as they both died before finishing the project. The Finnish Association of the Deaf had the first Finnish sign language dictionary De dövstummas åtbördsspråk i Finland I–III Kuuromykkäin viittomakieli Suomessa I–III (The Deaf-and-dumb Sign language in Finland I–III) printed of similar pictures between 1910–1916.

Nordic sign language

Julius Hirn’s dream of the Nordic sign language did never actualise but the idea survived for decades. In the sixth Nordic Congress in 1947, Rurik Pitkänen brought up again the possibility of bringing the Nordic sign languages closer to each other and, again, a commission was summoned to  compile a Nordic sign language. The results were, however, poor. Nevertheless, the efforts continued until the late 1900′s.