One of the most famous and moving stories is that of Helen Keller, a deaf-blind woman who managed to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree despite her adversities. The oft-quoted part of her story is when she managed to make the connection between the words her teacher, Ann Sullivan, was making in Helen’s palm and the objects they represented; Helen came to understand one day that every object has a name, and this was the beginning of everything.
Ann Sullivan used fingerspelling –spelling words with the fingers– and “spelled” the letters of each word in Helen’s palm in the hope that Helen would make this connection. Fingerspelling though is only a tool in the languages of the deaf, the so-called sign languages. There is a misconception that sign languages are just an imitation of oral languages, just a compilation of gestures, and that the deaf represent the letters of the alphabet with the fingers and “speak.” However, this is far from the truth. Sign languages are not another way to represent oral languages, and what’s more, they have nothing to do with the corresponding oral languages that are spoken in a place.
For example, although American and British English speakers share the same language, American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) are different and mutually unintelligible. Sign languages are natural languages, like English and Spanish, for example, with the only difference that whereas oral languages use the sound-hearing mode, that is we pronounce them through the vocal tract and we hear them, sign languages use visual-place mode, that is we “pronounce” them by using the fingers, face and body, and we see them. One very interesting event is the birth of the Nicaraguan Sign Language: when schools for the deaf were created in the country, the deaf children, who were isolated from each other up to then, were taught lip reading. However, when they met in the playground, the children invented their own sign system (LSN).
This brings us to a characteristic of all sign languages, which makes them similar to their oral counterparts: they follow the same phases of first language acquisition, i.e., the various structures of language are acquired at the same age in both hearing and deaf children, and there is a critical age between 0 and 4/5 years for both. For example, at the same age when hearing children mistakenly use “you” to refer to themselves, the deaf children point to the other person (the sign for “you”) to refer to themselves. Nicaraguan deaf children were past the critical age and so they developed some sort of a pidgin which slowly evolved into a language (ISN).
Sign languages have their own grammars, which are far from simple. ASL’s grammar, for example, is reminiscent of Navajo. The various grammar structures are shown with a combination of hand shapes, movements of the palm, hands and body, facial expressions, and body postures. To give an example, in ASL, to show the part of a sentence that is the subject, as in “John I really like” where we want to stress that it is John, and not Mary, that I really like, one raises the eyebrows and lifts the chin together with the sign for John. To understand what a signer signs, one has to literally have in view everything and not only the sign.
I will end this post on a personal note. Sign languages have been persecuted and forbidden as usually happens with languages of minorities. In the book by N. E. Groce, “Everybody here spoke sign language” we read that in a small town in Martha’s Vineyard, an island outside Cape Cod, for about three centuries the hearing inhabitants also knew the local sign language because the deaf population of the island was numerous and rich. In 1960, William Stokoe argued that sign languages are natural languages. From then onward much research has been done in Linguistics which has revealed many interesting things about the structure of sign languages and how similar in structure they are to oral languages. Moreover, many discoveries have been made regarding the nature of human language which would never have been made if we just studied oral languages. All this as well as the work of many psychologists and educators has helped give sign languages and signers the place they deserve in society.
Do you have a story that relates oral languages to sign language? Please share!