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.
We never notice how incredibly much we know. It takes a vivid imagination even to have a sense of what a deaf child is missing. The most well-meaning of parents seldom realise how much is invisible because not heard, not named. Today, in prosperous parts of the world but increasingly everywhere on earth, a child can learn Sign from infancy as a first language. Hence it learns, just like hearing people, how our culture organises itself and the world. Not only will the child be put in company with other Signers; more and more hearing parents who have the resources will themselves learn Sign. Adults can after all create the amenities for themselves; instead of having to go to a dance in the dowdy clubroom of a designated school as they did a generation ago, today’s deaf city-dweller who fancies such things knows the deaf bars. Such evident increases in dignity matter a lot, but it is the beginning that counts most. As Sign becomes a language in its own right the deaf infant enters a world of human communication. The ordinary deaf child, as Sacks insists, can become an ordinary, if deaf person. Once the euphoria has settled down, there will certainly be hard questions about the marginalisation of the deaf in languages of their own. But there will also be more of a continuum from communities of the deaf to the hearing world. It will first be mediated by the family, as speaking parents increasingly learn Sign in order to be with their children. Even more important is that large class of people not born completely deaf, even if they became so, people who learned to speak among the hearing, but now learn also to Sign with the deaf.
Yet here we begin to be introduced to the political complexities. There is evidence that at present, as one might expect, parents without immense amounts of free time do much better at communicating with their children in a signed version of a spoken language: they don’t have to learn a new grammar, and the children have a better chance of being introduced to language and general knowledge. There will be, in the foreseeable future, enormous political implications in how two deaf people greet each other on first acquaintance. Shall I sign in a natural language, Sign, or an artificial representation of a spoken language? The very first act will determine the type of person I am seen to be.
The story of the education of the deaf is fraught with bitterness and dogmatism. The dominant school of thought from 1880 until recently has held that Sign should be suppressed, or at best used as an aid in teaching. When signs were used it was said that they should be limited to finger-spelling and to signed English (or French, or German) – a way of conveying English sentences more or less word for word. The aim was a pupil who read and lip-read English, and who had learned how to utter English words. This is called ‘oralism’. Their opponents, until recently a more or less underground faction, argued that totally deaf children should learn Sign as a first language. It is hard to tell the story of this contest for the soul of children without betraying generations of teachers who have given their life and their love and an almost frightening amount of daily, hourly, yearly energy teaching deaf children to speak. I can only imagine the resentment of oralist-orientated teachers when people who have done nothing for the deaf now casually say they were all wrong. But they were and for deep reasons.
We don’t know much about language and the deaf outside Europe or before the Enlightenment. Since then, however, high culture – philosophers, philologists, grammarians and pedagogues – has been much preoccupied with the question of language and the deaf. Sacks’s book is the latest in this tradition. Deaf pupils have had to endure every twist in our civilisation’s convoluted thinking about language and society; and even now it is the philosophical culture of the day which determines the nature of the theories about how the deaf should be taught. High culture gave the teachers a good press. After Boswell’s Tour every reader in Europe knows about Braidwood’s school in Edinburgh. Dickens’s American Notes contain detailed descriptions of the education of a blind deaf-mute: Laura Bridgman, on whom Helen Keller’s training was patterned (both were victims of scarlet fever at the age of two). But we know almost nothing of the culture of the Signing deaf themselves. The communication was widely dismissed as pantomime; at times it had to be kept secret and underground, for it was forbidden in boarding-schools.
The history of language and the deaf is part of a general history of ideas and institutions that is not yet written, although the materials are wonderfully set out in Harlan Lane’s polemical, immensely informative, brilliantly imaginative When the mind hears. The Enlightenment generated individual teachers of the deaf, and the inevitable 17th-century books on method. These are truly philosophical works, many with that tincture of madness which we expect of the minor philosophers of the day, and rich sources for any student of the Enlightenment theories of language in general. We owe the transmission (if not the invention) of our present system of finger-spelling to a Spanish Jesuit. Bonet’s book of 1620, beginning as it does with an interminable essay on the etymology of the very word ‘letter’, reads like a wonderful parody of Early Modern Scholarship. Later came the schools – notably, Paris 1755, Edinburgh 1760, Leipzig 1778. Each school bred other ones using its method. Each had its successes. ‘How strange it is to dine in company with the finest orator in Europe, and see him talk with his fingers,’ Talleyrand may have said: he was with Charles Fox and his deaf son, then at school in Hackney, a spin-off from Edinburgh.
In the medium term Leipzig had the greatest influence, for it and the later German establishments became the home of the ‘pure’ oral method. In 1880, at a world congress in Milan, it swept all rivals before it, with consequences from which (say its opponents) we are only now escaping.
It is, however, the Paris school that triumphed, in the end – or so it now seems – and its history is also by far the most romantic. It was founded in 1755 by the Abbé de l’Epée, moved, it is said, by the Signing of two deaf girls. The first heady days of revolution saw it turned into the National Institute for the Deaf under an admirer of de l’Epée, the Abbé Sicard. During the Terror he was denounced and the school vandalised; he escaped execution by accident. Only after a campaign run by its most successful pupil, a campaign which included a hit play about de l’Epée, and much courting of the First Consul, did the school and its director gain national support and funding once again. The deaf and their advocates naturally describe these events as part of their history, but they also mirror other ideas, in situations and practices of the day. Many deaf schools were asylums for the deaf. The weekly public ‘demonstrations’ of the pupils of Sicard’s school even had the same form as the ‘demonstrations’ in the Paris insane asylums such as the Salpêtrière; and Sicard’s tours de force resembled Charcot’s better-known performances of a later time.
All the schools aimed at producing pupils who could speak, or, failing that, read and write. All had various ways of representing spoken language by signs of hand and body. But de l’Epée and Sicard clearly favoured a somewhat autonomous sign language in order to start their pupils on the road to French, and to teach them along the way. Sicard did not even discourage the development of such a language on its own, seeing it not as a threat, but as something to be exploited. An American educator, T.H. Gallaudet, was sent to Europe, returned with Laurent Clerc, a pupil of Sicard’s, and set up a series of schools one of which is now the university in Washington that bears his name. American sign language, the most developed Sign, has descended from what Clerc and Gallaudet brought from France. But America, at least officially, was also conquered by oralism (whose American colonel was Alexander Graham Bell, a Scot brought up on the Edinburgh methods). Sign was seen as an escape for the deaf, a way in which they might get along if they refused to integrate themselves in the speaking world. There was plenty of ideology in the triumph of oralism (you can quickly fill in the rhetoric of the crutch which the patient must never rely on, or the organ becomes moribund; add a little eugenics, the deaf if left to talk among themselves will inbreed ...) but also confusion and deceit. For oralism – speaking and lip-reading – is not obviously a bad mode of education for those not deaf at birth. The poet David Wright, deaf from scarlet fever at the age of seven, tells, in Deafness: A Personal Account, how glad he is to have been at that kind of school. The people on whom oralism worked had some experience of speech and seem also to have been intrinsically bright. Most of those cited to prove the virtues of the pure oral method had once had some hearing.
Sign is not a matter of holding up the hands in a certain shape as a ‘sign’ for an English word or for an idea. Sign is a matter of moving hands, arms, face and body. Space is everything, and it is a marvel that the human eye can take in what are, for non-signers, movements too fast even to see, let alone distinguish. Hand shapes are modulated within a whole pattern of movements. Sacks has a page with drawings of variations on the sign for looking at – staring, looking at incessantly, watching, gazing, repeatedly looking at, continuously observing for a long time. The inflections are much less reminiscent of English than of languages in which verbs are inflected to express a great many different aspects. Sign doesn’t have passive and active verb forms, but passivity and agency in action are readily conveyed. There are no pronouns, but the function of pronouns is well served by space. In telling a story a character may be identified by a description or just by a name, finger-spelled. Then the character is positioned in the space of the Signer, and re-identified by pointing to that space. In a ‘she said/then she said’ story the narrator may switch from one position to another, and not only identify the space of the speaker but also some other trait – height, say, or awkwardness.
Despite the vitality of Sign, deaf people who used it accepted that it is not a true language. They have often been resistant to any codification or reporting of their Signing, shyly and even guiltily keeping secret that they used it a lot (if it’s a crutch you’re using you don’t want to confess that that’s what you use all the time, especially to the hearer who will despise you for it, or, in school, even punish you). The great breakthrough was scholarly: a 1960 monograph by W.C. Stokoe, Sign Language Structure. It was not well received. It seemed to be saying that ASL had a grammar! In 1957 another monograph had appeared: Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures. Together with the talks Chomsky was then giving, it revolutionised linguistics. All previous theories of grammar were wrong. Every language had not only a grammar but also a deep structure. The extraordinary ability of small children to pick up language and acquire grammar so quickly demanded explanation. The core of their grammar was inherited. There is a universal grammar underlying all human languages, and each human language employs a grammar rooted in it.
Chomsky was unintentionally central to the establishing of Sign as a language. His ideas captured the minds of almost all young linguists. If one was to show that Sign was a language, then one must show that it has a grammar. That was just what Stokoe had begun to do, and thus Sign linguistics came into being. The strategy was clear: show that all the features which, according to both linguistics and common sense, are characteristic of language are also true of Sign. There has now been a whole generation of workers doing just that. The strategy has worked. It was an essential tool in the rhetoric of the ‘liberation’ of the deaf. If one could not, in the Sixties and Seventies, at least begin to argue that Sign had grammar, then the thesis that Sign is language was dead. Ursula Bellugi and an increasing number of co-workers continued Stokoe’s work, methodically tracking down and identifying almost anything attributed to spoken languages, and showing that it could be attributed also to Sign.
I have not the slightest doubt that Sign has all the expressive power of spoken languages. It is not exactly the same kind of expressiveness, but then spoken languages, too, perform the same task with varying degrees of elegance or brevity. Sign, being so embedded in space, movement and the body, is more economical than English in those domains. But what about abstractions? I have a deaf friend who attends philosophy lectures with a simultaneous translator. Are any of the lecturer’s thoughts hard to convey in Sign? Aside from problems of vocabulary (her interpreter had hardly heard the word ‘hermeneutics’ even in English and did not know how to Sign it), what about ideas? Well, the interpreter had broken down when the lecturer started to quote Hume’s ‘tho’ justice be artificial, the sense of morality is natural. ’Tis the combination of men, which renders any act of justice beneficial to society.’ But I tried this in a mock-lecture on a friend who translates simultaneously into Russian, and he too was flummoxed. Both interpreters, after much reflection, figured out how to say Hume’s sentence.
Let’s take the conclusion for granted: Sign is a language. By now the only thing which would refute that thesis would be a body of thought which can be expressed in a number of spoken languages but not in Sign. No amount of theorising about what language ‘must be’ will do. If the theory does not work for Sign, then the theory is false. But what about common sense? Don’t we have thoughts running through our heads, thoughts like silent sentences that could be spoken? Yes. Signers think in Sign, sometimes with signs running almost imperceptibly through the musculature of the body. Signers dream in Sign, and can sometimes be seen to do so. Sign is language. That said, do we need, any longer, the premise that Sign has a structure sufficiently like the grammar of spoken languages to call it a language? Perhaps the time has come to argue the opposite way: the grammar of Sign may have precious little to do with that of spoken language.
There has to be some commonality, however, if only because there are many bilingual Sign/English users, and much Sign has been devised in the company of hearing people. The overall organisation of ideas in anything that readily finds a place in Western culture will be – unless Sign really spins off into a niche of its own – one in which there are things, actions and events. We usually start sentences with the ‘subject’: Sign starts with the action or activity – but the conceptual breakdown of the universe seems pretty much the same. So it is natural enough to speak of verbs and nouns, but that goes no way at all towards the syntactic structure that at present fascinate grammarians. Grammarians are much concerned with ‘deviant’ utterances, sentences that aren’t quite right. For the modern grammarian error is the touchstone, for a good grammar should sort the sentences which are quite right from those which are not. It is at least arguable, at present, that a signer’s mistakes should be described by a different set of categories from the one which guides spoken languages. Without really thinking about it we distinguish between poor pronunciation, incorrect syntax, inept expression of meanings and infelicities of style. But these very categories of mistake don’t work well in Sign.
So one begins to wonder whether whatever enables children to catch on so quickly to English or any other spoken language can be what enables them to do so well quickly in Sign. ‘Yes, exactly the same thing’ would be the answer given by Nelson Goodman, the philosopher who twenty-five years ago, in debate with Chomsky, said he could see no evidence of anything more than the human imaginative skills of grasping and groping. Others might say that to learn spoken language, children need Chomsky’s famous innate universal grammar processor, and they use something different in acquiring Sign. That is not going to be a popular answer! For that universal grammar was also supposed to be part of the essence of the human mind and of human thought. Do the deaf simply bypass the lot and get on fine? Historians may record that just as a ‘cognitive science’ modelled on spoken language became orthodoxy, a speechless minority silenced its claims to hegemony.
This is not to say that there aren’t lots of things to learn about the brain and Sign. Left and right hemispheres have different roles in the processing of spatial as opposed to computational information; and Sacks reports experiments to show how Sign seems to use different parts of the brain from speech. Lots of cognitive science and theory of the brain can only be confirmed by research on the deaf and their language. We are also, I think, taken back to older eras of speculation about language, areas which most people had thought obsolete. Sacks repeats a story of a deaf child, newly introduced to the practice of naming, who runs through the woods demanding the name of each new species of tree – and finds that trees come in kinds. In fact, it is the story of a child for the first time having the power of generalising. It is a very old idea that common nouns give us the power to think in general terms. The British nominalist psychologists of the Enlightenment – Hobbes through Hume – were much exercised by general names, and had difficult views about how a common name served as a word for one thing, but somehow stood for many. There could be no generality before the common name. They held this in a deep sense. It was not just that you could not express a generalisation without a common name. Nor was it that we could not know that another person believed a generalisation unless it could be stated in words. It was the belief that there could be no generality at all without a system of names.
Hobbes put this once using the very example of deafness. He wrote that a deaf mute could determine of any individual triangle that its angles are the sum of two individual right angles. The person might even reason following the Euclidean proof to this conclusion, but only for a particular triangle. This genius would still not be able to conceive of the universal proposition about triangles. For that, we require a mark to serve as a general name of any particular triangle. Hobbes did not think we need the word ‘all’, but we did need the word ‘triangle’: common names and verbs can be enough to think and to express generality. The mutes who were known to Hobbes lacked that, and thus lacked all generality. A modern shallow sophisticate is trained to say, perhaps as pseudo-Wittgenstein, that without words we possess no criteria for judging that a person understands a universal proposition. So the claim made of another, that he knows the theorem, has no clear sense. Hobbes was after bigger game than that. We must have physical marks outside of our own minds to stand for our ideas and for things: only thus can we think in general terms. Sign teaches us that there can be such a system which is not of words, written or spoken. Philosophy feeds on examples. Until now it has been restricted to a diet of speech. Philosophy of mind and of language, we hope, will never be the same again.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.