Talking Hands

by Margalit Fox

August 11th, 2008

Somewhere in Israel is a village of Bedouins. To preserve the privacy of the villagers, this book does not identify that village. It was founded three generations ago by an immigrant, and since then the population of the village has grown to several hundred. Bedouins tend to marry close to their social group, and so there was a significant amount of inbreeding. It just so happened that the founding generation had some recessive genes for deafness, and so a minority of the population now is deaf. Because the village has been isolated from outside influences, the villagers developed their own sign language for communication with the deaf. A majority of the villagers speak this native sign language.

Linguists slobber over situations like this: here we have a language that sprang out of linguistic nothingness, with no heritage whatsoever, no customs or traditions to influence it. It therefore offers linguists an opportunity to learn about the natural proclivities of the human mind for language. This book presents a summary of what has been learned so far.

The first lesson is that sign language is just as much a “real” language as spoken languages. It is processed in the same areas of the brain that process spoken language. It consists of fundamental components that are assembled into combinations that constitute words. In spoken languages, those components are phonemes: what we call vowels and consonants. In sign language, those components are threefold: handshape, location, and motion. Two completely different sign language words can share the same handshape and the same motion while differing in their initial location – just as two completely different spoken words (cat and car) can share two out of three phonemes.

What’s really revealing is that some of the same mistakes common to spoken language show up in sign language. For example, in one experiment, speaking people heard a list of words, and then were asked to repeat the words back. Of course, with a lot of words it’s easy to make mistakes, but the nature of the mistakes made reveals something about the mind. Some of the people who heard the word “noon” remembered it as “noun”; “cheese” was sometimes mistakenly recalled as “keys”, and so forth. What’s striking is that the deaf subjects, presented with exactly the same list of words – except that the words were presented in sign language – made completely different mistakes. Some recalled “noon” as “tree”; others recalled “cheese” as “new”. The trick, of course, is that the sign for “noon” is similar to the sign for “tree”, and the sign for “cheese” is similar to the sign for “new”. The brains of deaf people process sign language in a fashion very similar to the way speakers process sign language, because they make the same kinds of mistakes.

Sign language has many other structural similarities to spoken language, but those structures are manifested in very different ways. For example, many languages have some sort of system for classifying types of words. English has no such system, and most of the Indo-European languages have a weak system called gender: words are either masculine, feminine, or neuter (although in many cases there appears to be no logic to the classifying systems). Other languages have extensive classifying systems, with dozens of categories. It turns out the sign languages also have classifying system.

How about grammar, the way that sentences are put together? Sign languages also have their own systems of grammar. The most common is word order, just as in English. In Latin, we can say “Puer amat puellam”, which means “The boy loves the girl”. But we can arrange the words in any order we want, because the grammatical indicators are built right into the words themselves. “Puellam” is the accusative version of “puella”, which means that the girl is the direct object of the verb. And “puer” is in the nominative case, which means that it has to be the subject of the sentence. So we can say “Puellam amat puer” and it still means “the boy loves the girl”. In English, word order dictates grammatical relationships, so that “the boy loves the girl” means something very different from “the girl loves the boy”. Sign language is similar in that it often (but not always) relies on word order to establish grammatical relationships.

The most important discovery for me is that sign languages have a great system for pronouns. First, you sign a word like “blueberry”, then you sign an indication that you’re putting that word in a specific location in the space around you. From that point forward, you can say “blueberry” just by pointing to that location. This means that you can have a bunch of different words placed in the space around you and talk about them simply by pointing to each of them. The pronouns available in English are very limited; in practice, you usually have only one pronoun available to use. For example, consider the ambiguity inherant in this sentence: “John asked Bob whether he was a geek”. The spoken language analog the sign language pronoun system would be something like this: “John, pronoun 1, asked Bob whether pronoun 1 was a geek. Alas, we can’t do this. But it does give me ideas.

All in all, I like this book. The author tries a bit too hard to humanize it by talking about the people involved in the study and the Bedouins, but I’m too mental to care much about that – for me, the linguistics is what mattered.