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What's Your Sign?

January 11, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Let’s listen with our eyes and not just our ears. That would be the ideal.” -Christine Sun Kim

Early exposure to language seems to be the key in all languages. The key to what? Success in that language, or with language in general? Or in society? What is the bar for success and how is it measured? With today’s blog, I want to better understand how language expresses thought, particularly through the lens of sign language.

Most of us have some experience with a young, non-verbal child (your own, someone else’s, or even through movies, etc) in which the child wishes to communicate. Think of the crabby one or two year old demanding something by screaming or crying, body language and/or facial expressions. Also, think of the parents’ joy at their child’s first word. It really is amazing to have these tiny humans mimic words at such a young age. This seems to be proof of an innate desire to communicate with others. Even if it is mimicry at this stage, they come to grasp the idea of language and communication, which still leaves me wondering how far language is learned versus innate. The child simply sees adults talking, or perhaps older siblings, and they want to join. Spoken language has existed for over 60,000 years, making it difficult to differentiate natural from learned behaviors. However, a lot of superb scholarship is currently coming out of sign language due to two facts: a) it is a relatively new language and b) sign language is not linked with verbal language. These differences offer some key insights into how languages act.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), sign language relies upon visual cues alone. It creates language with bodies and space. Though there is an alphabet, it is used mainly for spelling new words or names. While there are a number of popular sign languages, today’s blog focuses mostly on American Sign Language (ASL).

First, let’s start with fingerspelling. This is the process of spelling a new word, such as the name of a person or organization. But it could also be some new piece of information. According to this lesson plan on ASLU, many flowers lack specific signs in ASL. Therefore if you want to say daisy, you would fingerspell D-A-I-S-Y. In further explanation of the utility of fingerspelling, the instructor continues: “How about food? While there are quite a few signs for various food items, there are thousands of types of foods that have no established sign. Hold on to your chair when I tell you this - there isn't even a widely accepted sign for burrito. (As opposed to a burro, which is a small donkey. We do have a sign for "donkey," but try showing a picture of a both a donkey AND a mule to 10 different Deaf people and watch 'em tell you ‘mule is spelled.’) And a mule is a relatively common animal -- don't even get me started on ‘ring-tailed lemurs!’”

Another use of fingerspelling is when you have a common name like John or Bob, you can fingerspell the name, but refer to a particular space in front of you which will equal “Bob” for the rest of the conversation. So, as a shortcut, you can point to that space to indicate Bob, rather than fingerspelling the name each time. There are some instances, however, in which a name does have a particular sign. Think of names like Dawn or Penny. These are somewhat common names which also have a corresponding sign. In this case, you would fingerspell the name to explain that you mean to designate a proper noun and not the concept of dawn, for example.

In fact, names offer such a rich area of study in terms of sign language. There is an entire culture dedicated to naming things in sign language. Names often depend upon a person’s characteristics as decided by the Deaf community. This short video from My Smart Hands gives a little more understanding into how names are assigned.

SignSavvy.com (among others) explains:

“Fingerspelling your name can seem a bit impersonal, especially among friends. So, members of the Deaf community often give each other sign names. Your sign name is often related to something about you (a characteristic). For example, if you have curly hair, your sign name may be a combination of the first letter of your name and the sign for curly hair. Culturally, it is not appropriate to pick your own sign name and only Deaf people assign sign names. When you first use a sign name in a conversation, you would fingerspell the name and then show the sign name. Once the people know who you are talking about, the sign name makes it easier and more personal to refer to the person during the conversation.”

Many cultures have not been able to control their own language due to outside oppression and/or language mixing. While French sign language and ASL do share a common history, today they are distinct languages. Due to the unique nature of the Deaf community, it is not clear (to me, at least) to what extent an outside force could actually affect or alter a particular sign language. (For more on this, check out Nicaraguan Sign Language or the fascinating Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language.) It makes sense that the Deaf community prefers to assign their own signs for names, since much of sign language relies upon a cultural understanding of how to use space, body language and gesture itself. In the same way that typing in all capital letters looks like shouting, some subtle body change (such as pointing, shaking your hand, or raising an eyebrow) may greatly affect the nature of the word that you mean. The artist Christine Sun Kim explains that “In deaf culture, movement contains sound.” (She explains the concept of full-body language in this TedTalk.) Signs can express irony, sarcasm, anger, humor, etc. just as capably as voiced speech. Understanding humor or sarcasm in a second language, however, is one of the greatest challenges of learning a new language.

Due to the way that sign language involves full body language, I find that it is an extremely emotive language. While the Syntopicon does an adequate job of outlining topics related to Language, I find fault that there is not a cross-reference for Language in terms of Emotion. I believe there is much development to be made between the cognitive associations of language making, language preferences, language learning, memory recall and emotion. Since memory and emotion are both contained in the limbic system of our brains , it would make sense to pair language recall with memory and/or emotion. (To Adler’s credit, he does suggest a link between Memory and Imagination). There is room though, I believe, for exploration regarding emotion as it relates to language cognition, use, and development. One other area of great interest to me is the bridge between Language and Art (which Adler does address in the Syntopicon). (For more about the deaf experience in the world of art (and sound), check out artist Christine Sun Kim’s exploration of noise.)

I also wish that there was a cross-reference between Language and Nature. Is language natural? In what way(s) does the early language-learner express a natural tendency to communicate? If the young child desires to communicate, is this concrete evidence that natural language exists, that language is natural to humans? What does it mean to say that language is natural? And finally, what can a developing language such as sign language tell us about language itself?

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