Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Five Tidbits on (Signed) Language

I am currently in the midst of Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind, by Margalit Fox. The book is intended for the general audience so, though it is ostensibly about Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), "a sign language used by about 150 Deaf and many hearing members of the al-Sayyid Bedouin tribe in the Negev desert of southern Israel," about half of the book is devoted to the history and science of (signed) language in general. A full review will surely follow but first, here are a few fascinating tidbits I gathered from the book.

1. Some languages have only two color words: essentially, black and white. However, they are not black and white in the traditional, anglo-centric tradition: black represents all the dark and muted colors, like blues, greens and grays; white represents the bright yellows, oranges, reds, etc. If another color is needed during practical conversations, speakers have been known to point at an object of the appropriate color. It works well in Al Sayyid: though they live in a bleak desert most families have very colorful rugs and traditional clothing.

Generally, the more color words a language has the older it is: English has eleven *basic* color words (nevermind niceties like mauve and chartreuse), as do Japanese, Hebrew and Hungarian. Predictably, ABSL has only two -- it is only about seventy years old -- though some of the community's deaf children, who attend classes where the more standard Israeli Sign Language is used, have brought home a third word: purple.

2. The creation of American Sign Language (ASL) was a happy accident. In 1815, an American preacher by the name of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (yes, that Gallaudet), inspired by Alice Cogswell, his nine-year-old deaf neighbor, traveled to Europe to find an effective method of teaching the Deaf. What he discovered, a sign language today known as Manual French, was a cobbled-together mess of signs from Old French Sign, together with many of the creator's own invention. Essentially, it was French but on the hands, but what worked ex oris was very impractical and unwieldy ex manus. Sentences that took upwards of fifty signs to say in Manual French can be translated to ASL, for example, in as little as five.

Nevertheless, Gallaudet took the system home with him and, together with Laurent Clerc, one of the most prominent pupils of the language, founded the Hartford Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb on April 15, 1817. It was the first school for the deaf in North America and is now called the American School for the Deaf.

It is there that the magic occurred: drawn by the promise of full and proper communication, dozens of deaf pupils joined the school each year. Very shortly the school had a few hundred students. Yet the magic came, not in the classroom, but in the hallways and dormitories. For the first time dozens of deaf people were together on a daily basis, able to interact in some form. In short, they made a language, today called American Sign Language. It probably happened the same way all languages are created: the first generation, armed with perhaps a few hundred signs,* created a basic contact language with almost no grammar -- a pidgin. From there the second generation, lead particularly by young children, took that simple, grammarless gobbledygook and turned it into a language -- a creole. Which brings me to my next point:

3 The language instinct or language bioprogram. In the late 1950s, a man named Noam Chomsky, a man as important to Linguistics as Charles Darwin is to Biology, began what is today sometimes known as the Chomskyan Revolution. Chomsky's work was extensive and far reaching but the crux of the revolution was the idea of the language instinct -- a hypothetical, innate ability that all healthy humans possess which enables them to learn, speak, understand, and even create language.

The nature of this bioprogram is not entirely understood, but decades of research by a whole spectrum of linguists has proven that, yes, it does exist. Derek Bickerton, for example -- author of a book I read last year: Bastard Tongues: A Trail-Blazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages -- has spent his long career studying spoken creoles in the Caribbean and South Pacific, those relatively new "bastard tongues" that sprang up as a result of the unfriendly colonial clashes between native and European languages.

It is a concept that fascinated me then, when I read Bastard Tongues, and it still fascinates me now. Particularly, what are the commonalties of all languages? When stripped down to the essentials, as in the creole stage, languages have proven to be remarkably similar. Language geek that I am, I can't help but grab my pipe and dream about the "perfect" language -- some kind of creole-ish mess, with serial verbs galore, no doubt.

4 Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language is not the first sign language to spring up in a remote village with a high percentage of deaf people. About a dozen have been documented that still exist, though most are not as thoroughly ingrained in the culture as ABSL. However, there was one: Martha's Vineyard Sign Language sprang up, not surprisingly, on the little island south of Cape Cod. MVSL began its life in the early 18th century, when a form of genetic deafness was passed down through the close-knit population, and lasted till 1952, when the last deaf signer died. Little linguistic evidence survives but there is much anthropological evidence and, ahem, anecdotal evidence. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard, by Nora Ellen Groce, relays many of these anecdotes as the author heard them from elderly, hearing residents in the 1980s. The book is at the top of my to-read pile.

5 Is it an Upper- or lowercase "D"? In the simplest terms the word "deaf" is just an adjective like any other, used to describe a human trait-- like "tall," "fat," and "pretty." However, for at least decades -- and probably much longer than that -- many deaf people have seen one another as closely bonded, as a kind of subculture. Thus the emergence of the term Deaf Culture
and even the "Deaf Power Movement," to defend and extend the rights and privileges shown to deaf people.

* The signs used by the original class of the school include homesigns (ie simple gestures the deaf people used to communicate with their families at home), signs from Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, and, of course, signs from Manual French. To this day French Sign Language and ASL are rather similar -- in fact ASL signers can generally understand French SL much better than British SL.

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