Signing

Ian Hacking

  • Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf by Oliver Sacks
    Picador, 186 pp, £12.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 330 31161 1
  • When the mind hears: A History of the Deaf by Harlan Lane
    Penguin, 537 pp, £6.99, August 1988, ISBN 0 14 022834 9
  • Deafness: A Personal Account by David Wright
    Faber, 202 pp, £4.99, January 1990, ISBN 0 571 14195 1

For deaf people, especially for those born deaf, this has been the best of quarter-centuries. The happy events have not been medical but social. The deaf have been irreversibly granted their own language. Sign languages are now known not to be parasitic on spoken ones, and not to be a form of pantomime, a kind of charades. They do not have anything much like the structure of any spoken language, but they have comparable expressive power. Nor has the breakthrough been the invention of some new and better kind of Signing: it has been the hard-won understanding that Signing is language. That understanding is rapidly changing the education and the life of the deaf. It is changing the languages themselves, for they are now free to flourish. They are no longer kept almost as secrets, admissible in personal relationships among deaf people but separated from the larger realm of human experience, thinking, knowledge and civilisation. This new understanding of Sign – as any of the natural and regional sign languages may be called – matters to all of us. It will, I think, have profound effects on what future generations think that language ‘is’.

In speaking of ‘natural’ languages I mean just that: languages that evolve in the ways in which spoken languages do, but are thoroughly different. Here the most convenient contrast is between American Sign Language and signed English, the latter being one of a number of ways of representing English sentences, more or less word by word, by bodily movements. There are now natural sign languages, which I shall call Sign, in a great many parts of the world. Dialects quickly evolve. A recent four-volume doctoral dissertation argues that there is New Zealand Sign which is distinctly different from what had hitherto been called Australasian Sign. More locally, in rust-belt United States, a large and powerful lorry is represented by the Sign for a bulldog – because Mack trucks, one of the great manufacturers, had that as their logo. What I shall emphasise later, however, is not words but grammatical structures. Sign is like a natural language (and unlike signed English) in that its own grammatical forms are evolving in ways that suit its medium – movement in space – rather than my medium, sound.

There is just one easy place to go to find out about all of these things at once: Oliver Sacks’s new book of three essays. Like all his writing, the essays are engaging, funny, informed, humane and speculative. One, a brilliant piece of journalism, describes the 1988 revolution – the word used by every deaf person I know – at Gallaudet in Washington DC, the only university for the deaf. Officially students demanded their first deaf president, one of them. The sub-text, however, was that American Sign Language should replace forms of signed and written English as the main medium of instruction. That battle continues. Earlier in the book Sacks sketches much earlier events in the development of Sign, using wise but amiable footnotes full of anecdotes and reflections. Then there is a more speculative group of reflections on language, the mind, the brain, and on being a whole person. It made me wonder, as I’ll say later, whether we might not have to rethink much of what we’ve held dear about language for thirty-odd years.

Why should it matter whether Sign is held to be a language? The consequences for a child of ordinary intelligence, born very deaf, are incalculable. In the past, only the most gifted or the most fortunate had much chance of fully participating in a community. The child was unlikely to master the art of speaking even moderately well, and so was deaf and dumb. Not only mute: ‘dumb’ in the American or German meanings of the word – stupid. That was not only the prejudice of the ignorant: the learned, in devising the Library of Congress cataloguing system, standard in North America, filed books about deafness next to books about the mentally retarded. Indeed, a congenitally exceptionally deaf child was literally retarded – the mind was held back. A hearing child lives in a tumult of casual information about the wide world. Lore and gossip pouring into a small child are its entry to human life. Its awareness of love and envy, greed and caring is not limited to its immediate personal interactions with family and neighbours, but is informed by the delightful or spiteful tales they tell about everybody else. All the sorting and classifying and generalising that are the basics of wit and insight come with the naming of things, not something taught but casually picked up. Children are incredibly quick in catching on from cues, clues and innuendo. Sacks fills many pages with lovely examples of how the meanings and implications and simple facts and distinctions passed around in daily life are hidden from the deaf child. The problem of teaching a deaf child English as a first language is not just the task of helping him to master unheard sounds: in order to understand much, the pupil has to be taught one by one innumerable trifling facts about the world which are automatically grasped by the hearing child.

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