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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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Celebrate the Old and New

January 4, 2019

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

Some members in my family celebrate New Year’s Eve with lutefisk or sauerkraut. Some people celebrate with both. I, however, draw the line at lutefisk. I just cannot stomach it. What seems to me to be a petty difference of taste really bothers others, though. They fear bad karma (or something) when I disrespect the tradition. We turn this into a joke at the dinner table, but in reality, traditions run much of our lives and so I thought it might be worthwhile to better understand what they are and how they function in society.

While tradition is not in the Great Books anthologies per se, Custom and Convention is listed as one of the great ideas. In it, Mortimer Adler offers the following definition convention. He explains:

“In the tradition of the great books, the word ‘convention’ has at least two meanings, in only one of which is it synonomous with ‘custom.’ When ‘convention’ is used to signify habitual social practices, it is, for the most part, interchangeable with ‘custom.’ In this significance, the notion of convention, like that of custom, is an extension of the idea of habit. What habit is in the behavior of the individual, customary or conventional conduct is in the behavior of the social group.

“The other meaning of ‘convention does not connote the habitual social behavior but stresses rather the voluntary as opposed to the instinctive origin of social institutions, arrangements, or practices. … Whatever is conventional about social institutions might have been otherwise, if men had seen fit to invent and adopt different schemes for the organization of their social life. This indicates the connection between the two senses of the word ‘convention,’ for all customs are conventional in origin, and all conventions become customary when perpetuated.”

Obviously, this relates to the idea of New Year’s Eve lutefisk (and all traditions) – in that we celebrate what we find worthwhile in our lives and cultures. What we find worthwhile, however, may arrive through instruction, precedent, example, practice, or law. During the transition into a new year, many lists are compiled such as the greatest music, literature, or entertainment from the previous year. Do these lists merely reflect person opinion, or is it more complicated than that? Adler continues:

“The most familiar of all of the sophistic sayings – the remark attributed to Protagoras that ‘man is the measure of all things’ - is interpreted by both Plato and Aristotle to mean that what men wish to think or do determines for them what is true or right. Man’s will governs his reason, and convention, or the agreement of individual wills, decides what is acceptable to the group.”

In other words, convention drives personal opinion, perhaps even in undetected ways. It may be through trends and media that we receive hints about the health of our daily habits. These sources, though, represent, according to Adler, “an agreement of individual wills.” The line between individual and group, however, is extremely difficult to determine. How large does the group have to be before it becomes a group? What constitutes a fad? Is the mainstream synonymous with either the popular or traditional? Claude Lévi-Strauss adds that:

“Among the most primitive peoples it is not very difficult to obtain a moral justification or a rational explanation for any custom or institution … Even in our own society, table manners, social etiquette, fashions of dress, and many of our moral, political, and religious attitudes are scrupulously observed by everyone, although their real origin and function are not often critically examined.”

Many would argue that traditions arrive from nature or necessity, such as in the form of cleanliness, or human morality, or social preservation. Convention and tradition make for interesting discussions, but as for lutefisk, I am still not sold. In an effort to incorporate new traditions (aka my own) with old, I compromise with rice pudding. However, since it is an attempt to honor the idea of tradition, but is not actually traditional, perhaps I do more harm than good.

To read more about Resolutions, visit: hmu.edu.

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Imagination in Flight

November 16, 2018

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

In Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin has her protagonist, Genly Ai, travel to the distant planet Gethen which has no birds or flying insects. As a result, the communities there never even thought to attempt flight and their language has no word for flying. It is no wonder, then, that the people mistrust Genly who arrives by airship. It is also easy to see why Le Guin chose this scenario. She masterfully removes something which we often take for granted (that there are flying animals and insects) and then demonstrates how it impacts imagination. (For the record, there are many other major differences between our earthly world and Gethen, but I’m only talking flight today. I definitely recommend the book for all of those who are curious about science fiction experiments.) In chapter thirteen, Genly Ai and another man are sharing folktales about the places where they are from. Genly shares the story of flight. He remarks that he is not talking about a spirit world, but the real world. He says, “’Not by flapping their arms, you know. They flew in machines like cars.’ But it was hard to say in Orgota, which lacks a word meaning precisely ‘to fly’; the closest one can come has more the meaning of ‘glide.’ ‘Well, they learned how to make machines that went right over the air as a sledge goes over the snow.’” Of course, in order to communicate, language restricts Genly Ai to analogies of the place where he is, so he focuses on a common machine from this icy climate, the sled.

Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The history of flight is extremely curious and inspiring. The history of aviation includes such fascinating, bold, strong personalities as Emilia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, the Wright brothers and many, many others. However, I was caught by surprise recently when I discovered how little I know about lighter-than-air ships. In reading Ships of the Air by Lyn Curlee, I saw again that same spark of curiosity that often drives human invention. Curlee writes, “One day, after watching ashes from a fire float upward, Joseph Montgolfier folded a piece of paper, held it above a fire, then watched it fly up the chimney. Joseph believed that the smoky fire created some kind of gas that was lighter than air. Only later did he and Étienne understand that hot air rises. But Joseph did understand that if a big enough bag could be filled with hot ‘gas,’ the bag would rise off the ground – and could carry a person with it.” From there begins a wonderful, rich, global history layered with politics and science. After Montgolfier demonstrated a hot air balloon flight to Marie Antoinette, the world took note. Furthermore, his balloon contained a flight crew of a sheep, rooster, and duck, whose survival proved that the atmosphere was higher than previously imagined. Many people became interested in designing and flying airships. In the late 1800s, they became popular sights in France, London and Germany. And as war broke out, the zeppelin famously became a machine of war, rather than leisure.

Back when the Montgolfier brothers were experimenting with cloth and paper balloons, however, there were many misconceptions regarding flight. Curlee writes that in 1766, “Professor Charles’s balloon floated 15 miles into the countryside, landing near a small village. The villagers, who thought the balloon was a monster, destroyed it with pitchforks.” This mentality echoes what Le Guin describes on her science fiction world, Gethen. It took an incredible amount of imagination to believe in flight. Furthermore, imagination is, in part, problem-solving. For the story of airships to become any kind of success indicates that man must often think outside the box. I return to Joseph Montgolfier watching ashes rise. With possibility comes the calculated risk of burning the paper. Understandably, then, the airship has faced many problems, such as weather, flammability, size versus weight ratios, etc. Curlee continues, “The story of lighter-than-air travel is mainly the story of failures. People who designed airships made many mistakes – often because they were experimenting with new technology, sometimes because they were careless.” Even so, hot-air balloons still inspire our imaginations. They predate airplanes, have been created by humans all over the globe, and have been put to many uses (including a German mail service). One thing is clear, flight of any kind captivates humans. The ability to defy gravity, even for an instant, sparks the imagination.

Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

These photographs were taken at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Every October, over five hundred balloonists visit Albuquerque for its unique landscape and wind patterns. Balloons feature colorful designs, brand names, and cultural icons (Darth Vader is often a big hit). To see five hundred balloons floating up in the sunrise certainly inspires the imagination!

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Discussing de Tocqueville

November 2, 2018

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

For the October Quarterly Discussion, we read four chapters from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As usual, I distributed some questions beforehand intended to help start the conversation. Each discussion lasts 1.5 hours in which I (mostly) lead. I enjoy the responsibility of organizing these discussions because I get to begin with the questions that I have about a specific text. Due to the fact that so much of de Tocqueville’s writings resonate with me, I really struggled to refrain from participating too. His writings also speak to current politics, and therefore, it was doubly hard to avoid participation. I have to thank the participants in Harrison Middleton University’s October Quarterly Discussion who did an admirable job of sticking to the subject.

We began with the formation of political parties in general. He writes, “But when the citizens entertain different opinions upon subjects which affect the whole country alike, such, for instance, as the principles upon which the government is to be conducted, then distinctions arise that may correctly be styled parties. Parties are a necessary evil in free governments; but they have not at all times the same character and the same propensities” (88-9). So, while he finds parties to be a necessary evil, he also does not find them equal in character. From there, we tried to understand de Tocqueville’s delineation between “great” and “small” parties. Despite the way that it sounds, these two types of parties have nothing to do with size. Rather, in de Tocqueville’s mind, the great parties are those that discuss issues and have, what he calls, a “more noble” pursuit. On the other hand, small parties form around an issue or two. The small parties, according to de Tocqueville, care more about a single issue or a private interest than about ideas or the good of society, whereas great parties are concerned with principles and their general application. In 1830, he writes, “America has had great parties, but has them no longer; and if her happiness is thereby considerably increased, her morality has suffered” (89B). According to de Tocqueville, the great parties arose out of necessity and strife, a time when America was suffering. These parties looked at broad issues that would impact all of America. The focus, therefore, was more holistic. However, once these changes were implemented and the need for social cohesion lessoned, special interests overtook the general cohesion of the great parties and replaced them. De Tocqueville describes the effects of the small parties as those which “agitate” society rather than revolutionize it.

Furthermore, de Tocqueville’s use of happiness and morality is of great interest. In this section, he seems to define happiness as a level of individual comfort and perhaps peace. It appears that his version of happiness in America is one which leads to a sort of immorality. He suggests that the more comfortable we are, the more self-involved we are and therefore, less moral. In other words, morality may demand an ethic that lessens our ease of living. In the future, I would like to further investigate de Tocqueville’s idea of happiness by moving outside of this single chapter. I am curious how happiness (in his terms) aligns with morality throughout the text. Furthermore, I wonder how different translators have dealt with this idea. Is happiness the most appropriate word choice for the original French? How have others translated this section? (The Great Books version was translated by George Lawrence.)

From there, we moved into the chapter on Freedom of the Press. De Tocqueville begins this chapter by stating that he has reservations about a free press. He writes, “I confess that I do not entertain that firm and complete attachment to the liberty of the press which is wont to be excited by things that are supremely good in their very nature. I approve of it from a consideration more of the evils it prevents than of the advantages it ensures” (92A). First, he finds that a free press is invaluable to a democracy because information distribution would be limited by a single entity. On the other hand, freedom implies that nearly anyone can create news if they choose to do so. In the first case, news is singular and perhaps biased or incomplete. In the latter, news may lack data, information, facts and anything pertaining to reality. Furthermore, he writes, “[T]he hallmark of the American journalist is a direct and coarse attack, without any subtleties, on the passions of his readers; he disregards principles to seize on people, following them into their private lives and laying bare their weaknesses and their vices. That is a deplorable abuse of the powers of thought” (95A). He continues that, despite the abuse of thought, each individual newspaper carries little weight, which makes many small voices. This cacophony creates the “spirit” of the press. The multitude of voices also ironically removes the danger of a single voice reaching the level of despotism.

These chapters address very complex issues inherent in America’s being. They are worth more than 1.5 hours of discussion. Rather, de Tocqueville addresses so many contemporary issues that the entire volume is worth (re)reading. Additionally, discussing a work like this one is vital to understanding the depth of democracy’s issues. Democracy in America explains some of the foundations of our country in a way that is both poetic and holistic. My gratitude goes to those who spent time in discussion with me. I look forward to our next conversation!

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