Heeding the Signs

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What makes a language a language?

Simple, right? Any time humans get together and use a collectively-recognized series of utterances to successfully communicate ideas and concepts, we’ve got ourselves a language.

Well, sort of.

What if I gesture to a stranger in a distant land about the prospect of locally available food options? We are clearly communicating in some way, but few would mistake what we’re doing as participating in a shared language.

And what if I decide to spend my afternoon working through Virgil’s Aeneid in the original Latin? Almost nobody pronounces these sorts of “utterances” any more, but that hardly denies the linguistic status of those marks on paper that are widely regarded as representing nothing less than one of the pinnacles of Western literature.

And then there’s the question of American Sign Language and its many other counterparts throughout the world. Are they “real languages” too?

Well, we used to think not. But based upon Bill Stokoe’s ground- breaking work at Gallaudet University, we now have a much deeper appreciation of what, linguistically, sign languages are all about. Although it hardly happened overnight.

Carol Padden, the Sanford I. Berman Chair in Language and Human Communication and current Dean of Social Science at UC San Diego, began working with Stokoe as an enthusiastic sophomore in the 1970s. She vividly remembers the widespread reluctance of both the deaf and hearing communities to embrace Stokoe’s ideas.

“I began working with Bill in 1974, only 9 years after he had published his dictionary of American Sign Language (ASL). He had developed a code for the hand shape and the movement because he wanted to create a clear phonological, phonetic analysis of how the movements came to mean things.

“But deaf and hearing people alike thought he was crazy, that he had embarked on some sort of vanity project. Why would someone make a dictionary of ASL that had no pictures of signs in it?”

It turns out that Stokoe’s insights didn’t just make us better appreciate ASL, they shed vital light on how to characterize and assess all languages.

“He called his work A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, emphasizing the idea of the importance of dividing a sign into multiple parts, not simply examining how it looks.

Handshape C“The same basic hand shape can give rise to very different signs. Using a “C” hand shape, for example, one can sign “drink”, “church” and “very smart”. They have the same concept of the hand shape, but that’s the only commonality. He looked throughout the language and searched for the distinct relevant parameters to characterize meaning.

“Not all characteristics are relevant to meaning. In English, for example, the ‘th’ doesn’t have any common meaning. Take the words ‘there’, ‘wither’, and ‘path’. The ‘th’ is the same in all of those, but the function is quite different.

“So he rigorously evaluated the different parameters in ASL underlying the production of signs. For example, a sign can be produced at the chin, as in ‘drink’, or at the forehead, as in ‘very smart’. You move the hand shape to different places, which changes the meaning. What type of movement matters as well. So for ‘drink’ the hand shape goes up, whereas ‘very smart’ stays on the forehead. ‘Church’ goes up and down and has a bounce to it, and so forth.

“Bill notated and coded those things and put them into a corpus. He didn’t include every sign, because the dictionary wasn’t big enough for that, but he included a good subset of the signs. That seemed to be a good idea.

“But in 1965, people didn’t understand what he was doing. Now we understand. The point is that humans build structure: they create words, sentences, clauses, phrases – very complex entities and utterances.”

Now that we have a deeper understanding of what languages are, complete with an explicit awareness of the linguistic complexity of ASL and other sign languages, we are naturally better equipped to compare and contrast them, together with appreciating how they came into being. One key aspect of language that Carol has come to focus on is gesture. For years, sign-language linguists regarded gesture as almost a taboo topic, naturally concerned that people would confuse gesture with signing.

“When I started, we wanted to keep a distance from gesture because people would say, ‘Oh, it’s universal. It’s the same thing.’

“But it’s not. It’s different. One gesture, like giving thumbs up, can mean of multitude of different things: good job, it’s working, see you later, everything’s good, I’m fine, you can leave, and so on.

“In sign language, you would have a different sign for each of those expressions. So we needed that distance from gesture, because a lot of that work was really looking at co-speech gesture, using gesture to highlight what you are saying, like emphasizing the size of thomething. Co- speech gesture is very much linked to what you’re speaking. It is quite different from sign language, and we naturally wanted to stress that difference.

“Thirty years later, I think we’ve made our point. But now we’re returning to gesture to help us understand how languages develop.”

Much of Carol’s current research involves a careful study of the advent of new sign languages throughout the world, from Israel to Mexico to sub- Saharan Africa, carefully documenting their distinct evolutions and the role that gesture played in their development.

“You have a community that’s closed for some reason – geography, ethnicity, or what have you – for some reason they’re kept apart from schools and national sign languages. If you have a mix of deaf and hearing people, they will spontaneously begin to create a new sign language from gesture.

“In the first generation, it starts to take on properties that are distinctly different from co-speech gesture. It’s a little bit more than pantomime, Than you have a second generation, in which the language really starts to take shape. By the third generation, it really starts to look like a lot of other sign languages throughout the world. So in a span of about 75 to 80 years, you can build a new sign language out of gesture, with many of the properties of sign languages that are much older.”

And while Carol’s work focuses on the mechanisms underlying the development of new sign languages, her research experience has often uncovered even deeper truths about the power of community and the human experience.

“The thing about a lot of these communities is that it’s not just deaf people who are signing: hearing people are doing it as well – their siblings, their relatives, their neighbours. They will look at us, puzzled, and ask, ‘Why are you here? You came all this way just to watch us do this? This is as natural as breathing. We just want to communicate’.”

Howard Burton, howard@ideasroadshow.com

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Related video resources and eBook that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal: Clips: Humour in Sign Language, The Roots of Sign Language, Different Modalities, Signing as Language, Losing the Sharp Edges, Compilation: The Science of Language, Full-length video in 2 parts and eBook: Sign Language Linguistics, Part 1 and 2

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