Friday, April 30, 2010

Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind; by Margalit Fox

Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Behind the bleak, brown cover of Talking Hands is a book brimming with color and information. Similarly, a relatively new language -- a signed language that is unlike any other -- has been blossoming for the last seventy years amidst the sand in al-Sayyid, a Bedouin village in the Negev desert of southern Israel. In this village of approximately 3,500 a genetic form of deafness has been thriving as a result of frequent intermarriage. Today, about 150 villagers are deaf, but these people do not live isolated, marginalized lives, a common fate for deaf people throughout history. Rather they are fully-functioning members of their society and they owe much of this freedom to al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ASBL), a language that sprang up about seventy years ago when ten deaf villagers were brought together and consequently formed a simple contact pidgin.

This language was presumably very simple, virtually without grammar, an amalgam of gestures and signs, mostly nouns, thrown haphazardly together (though we will never be certain: all ten first-generation signers are dead). The second generation, however, were the real magic makers, morphing their parent's grammarless gestures, somehow, into a simple, yet fully-functioning language. Today, the members of this second generation are in their thirties and forties, raising the third generation of signers, who range from infancy to young adulthood. Not only the deaf children but also a large percentage of their hearing brothers and sisters, learn ABSL as a first language. So, unwittingly, these villagers have create a world that many deaf people have pined for, where deaf people are on the same level as hearing people and no one is singled out because of their deafness.

This village, as it turns out, offers a fascinating, even tantalizing opportunity for linguistics. At least as long ago as Noam Chomsky many linguists have been lusting after something, a thought experiment so taboo that it has come to be known as the Forbidden Experiment: essentially, put a bunch of kids together, with no linguistic input save for perhaps a few basic words and see what they make. This could help answer many important questions, chief among them, "How are languages formed?", "What are newborn languages alike?", and "Just how fundamentally similar are languages?" Al-Sayyid has offered a natural opportunity to answer those questions without the risk of forming a roving pack of feral children.

This book is the product of Margalit Fox, a New York Times reporter who, in 2004, decided to shadow a group of four linguists as they went on a research trip to al-Sayyid. The linguists' tools were basic -- just a laptop computer that showed a series of pictures and some video, designed to elicit basic vocabulary and syntax respectively -- but the data they collect will surely keep them busy for the rest of their careers. After the first chapter, "In the Village of the Deaf," Fox spends the next chapter discussing sign language in general. In the following chapters she follows the same pattern, alternating between discussing ASBL in particular and signed language in general.

ABSL is of great interest to many academic disciplines and Fox at least touches on all: anthropology, psychology, genetics, physiology, and of course the many aspects of linguistics. In her attempt at revealing ABSL Fox discusses the results of so many scientific studies, drops so many interesting tidbits she can't help but make her readers all a bit brighter. And I couldn't help but write a blog post about some of them. Already I see this review as rather wordy, more didactic than critical; it is all Mrs. Fox's doing.

Really, this is a great book for anyone -- you need not know anything about sign language or even language in general. It is a colorful, fact-filled book that never made me want to skim. With this in mind, and with the relative popularity of language books in the present day, I can only wonder why this book has not found more of an audience.

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