A nod, a frown, a smile, a shudder all send messages. Nonverbal communication conveys agreement, concern, approval, wariness, and so on. When a teacher turns around suddenly with a stern look, misbehaving students understand that they are being put on notice. A gentle rub on the shoulder communicates affection; a kick under the table warns of dangerous conversational territory.
The use of gestures is not tied to ethnicity or gender. Everyone does it. Infants use gestures as a primary means of communication until their speech muscles are mature enough to articulate meaningful speech. Take away the cultural indoctrination into spoken language and infants might well continue communicating in gestures for the rest of their lives. In time, their gestures might become the building blocks of a language-a signed language. This is not to suggest that signing is the most natural form of communication for human beings, only that it is not unnatural. What is unnatural is the taboo that our education system placed on signing for many years.
So the power of your hands to communicate should not come as a surprise. Discovering signing is not like discovering a new language in the heart of the Congo. Signing has always been part of human communication.
For millennia, deaf people have created and used signs among themselves. These signs were the only form of communication available for many deaf people. Within Deaf cultures all over the world, signing evolved to form complete and sophisticated languages. These languages have been learned and elaborated by succeeding generations of deaf children.
Since the beginning of time Deaf travelers have carried signs across national borders, particularly between countries that shared elements of culture. The signs of England and Australia, for example, are similar because the vast majority of Australia's early European settlers were from the British Isles. The signs of the United States and England, however, are very different. A shared oral language and, to some extent, shared ancestors might have produced similarities in signing, but linguists have found that ASL has more in common with French Sign Language than British Sign Language. (Chapter 2 explains how this happened.) Interestingly, a number of sign languages share some handshapes for the letters of the manual alphabet (though not necessarily for the same letters) or use the same signs for certain objects and concepts.
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