There's a common belief out there, even today, that signed languages are universal -- somehow closer to pantomime than spoken languages -- that native Deaf signers, and CODAs ([hearing] Children Of Deaf Adults), for whom sign is a first mode of communication, don't so much talk about
things, in the abstract, as act them out
. There's a facet of this meme that somehow, sign is more "natural," and speech is "cultural." If you are someone who idealizes the "natural state" and sees Culture as a corrupting influence, you are going to idealize sign language as "more romantic," and/or "pure" than spoken language, as Rousseau did in his essay On the Origin of Language
Love, it is said, was the inventor of drawing. It might also have invented speech, but less happily. Not being very well pleased with it, it disdains it; it has livelier ways of expressing itself. How could she say things to her beloved, who traced his shadow with such pleasure! What sounds might she use to work such magic?
If you are of a school of thought that idealizes science and rational explanations for things, on the other hand, as the writers and producers of PBS' NovaScience Now
do, you might grudgingly admit that sign is a "real" language, but you're likely to still demand that proof
of higher-order thinking be expressed in properly controlled, vocal, communication, as this snippet of a transcript from a recent episode illustrates (July, 2009):
ZIYA TONG: Most mammals make particular sounds only in reaction to a specific situation, like a dog that growls when it's threatened. Efforts to train apes and other land-dwelling mammals to control and modify the sounds they make have largely been unsuccessful.
LEAH COOMBS: Knock. Good. Knock, knock. [Walrus makes a knocking sound in his mouth] Good.
ZIYA TONG: A lot of animals obviously communicate through sound, so what's different about a walrus?
RONALD J. SCHUSTERMAN: What this training shows is they have incredible control over this, so that they can learn to produce these under certain occasions and inhibit them under other occasions.
(you can watch the full video of the segment, or get a link to the full transcript, here
The main point about signed languages that some people make to argue that spoken language is more logical and require higher-order thinking than signed languages is that signed languages are iconic -- that is, you can just make a picture of what you're talking about with your hands (tracing the shape of whiskers for CAT
, for example), rather than assigning an arbitrary sound to the subject. So, the argument goes, signed languages don't really need as much thinking as spoken languages do.
But, frankly, I
believe this "common knowledge" is really just a "common falsehood," and that actually, it's the other way around entirely: That it's vocalized
speech that is primitive, with a more direct connection to our emotions than signed languages.** And it's really only the power and privilege that comes with being in the linguistic majority that convinces hearies otherwise.
Here's where I give you a bit about how I came to this belief:
When I was going to the State University of New York at Stony Brook, for my Masters in Creative Writing, I had the opportunity to sign up for formal classes in ASL as a foreign language. These classes were total emersion --
nearly all communication was through sign, and/or reading messages on the blackboard from the teacher (Who was, himself, Deaf, and whose parents had been Deaf), from the very first minute of the very first class. They were Tuesday-Thursday classes, from 8:30 to 10:00 am. Being a college campus, the only students up and about at that hour were others going to that same class, and when we'd meet on the campus walkways, we'd sign to each other, as practice, instead of speaking. And in my case, being a graduate student, my next classes after that, where I'd have
to switch back to English to do my work, wouldn't be until well after supper. So: On my "Sign Days," for three-month stints at a time, I'd start thinking about ASL at around 6 am, and wouldn't start thinking about English until at least noon.
It wasn't long before I switched, in my brain, from thinking about
ASL to thinking in
ASL, at least for some of the self-talk that goes on in my head.
And that's when the realization hit me: That, really, there's one thing -- and one thing, only -- that an auditory language can do that a visual language cannot:
Warn someone who cannot see you of impending danger, such as a falling rock, or a stalking sabre-tooth tiger. Period. That's it. And for that, all you need is a primal scream, really -- something to get someone's attention, so they'll look up from what they're focused on, see the danger for themselves, and run (or bung a rock at it). And really, when you think about it, even our modern, high-tech alarms and auditory warning signals are still little more than primal screams: the clanging of a fire alarm, the ringing of a telephone, the siren of a police car or an ambulance,*** the rantings of Rush Limbaugh...
This was vitally important to our survival as a species, yes, especially since we have binocular vision, and cannot see what's around us very well at all. But it's hardly the sine-qua-non
of complex reasoning or the refined delights of civilization and fellowship.
Yes, human beings have evolved greatly since the days when life meant running from a sabre-tooth tiger, and our vocal-auditory mode of communication has evolved to a much more refined state than the primal: "AAuuuuGGhh!" Auditory communication has given us Homer, and Shakespeare, and Mozart. But its roots lie deep in the primative, instinctual parts of our brains, and sound is still used to manipulate our emotions without
engaging our reason -- just think how an effective soundtrack to a movie can suck you in even when the script is tissue paper thin.
Now, about that "Iconic vs. Abstract" distinction, and why I wish it would just go away forever:
First: Spoken languages are more
iconic than many people realize -- as Roy Blount Jr. points out in his introduction to Alphabet Juice
(A book I borrowed from, and returned to, the library, so I can't cite pages) "Sphinx" and "Sphincter" come from the same Greek root word for "Strangle" (the way that the Sphinx killed her victims), and when we speak the 'inx' sound, our throats squeeze shut a little bit.
Second: Signed languages are less
iconic than many people realize. I dare say that most of what we think of as iconic elements of signs are actually just mnemonic devices that we're taught after the fact, when we are learning a Sign Language as a second language.
Third: If signed languages are
slightly more iconic than spoken languages, it's because they are three-dimensional languages working in a three-dimensional world and so they can
be. If spoken languages can't
, that's more to do with their weakness than their strength.
Finally: even highly iconic signs like CAT are far from pure icons -- distilling the entirety of cat-hood into a single attribute of whiskerness, is
a symbolic abstraction, and further distilling that attribute into a single movement that can be made with one hand is another layer of abstraction.
So... when I did a poll about what I might post on this topic, a few of you on my LJ f'list said you kind of knew what ASL looks like from TV, but were not really that familiar with it. So I've been searching around for examples of ASL in use by native speakers, that wouldn't, at the same time, be overwhelming and just incomprehensible. I finally decided on this duo (The CODA brothers) -- they're native signers but they also do English voice-overs for their vlogs (video-blogs). Enjoy:
*So... (I thought, as I watched this) you're saying that people who cannot control their voices, either because they are pre-lingually deaf, or have a condition like CP, or Tourrette's Syndrome, aren't as fully human as you are? How special for you!
**I actually believe they're equal (mostly)
. I'm just reversing the argument completely, to make a point
***Police and Ambulance sirens are actually more confusing than informative because we can't rely on the Doppler Effect to help us determine whether the sound is coming or going, or how fast its traveling. All they do is trigger our adrenyl glands