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Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech

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Nothing about this early visible language would have prevented its users from making various vocal sounds as they communicated. We are prone to think of language exchanges as spoken. Most are, to be sure; but the fact is gestures accompany most of them, along with other visible changes in the speaker. Few linguists now take any notice of these visible changes, but all of us speakers, when important matters must be discussed, prefer a face-to-face to a telephone discussion. We know that what we can see contains information we do not want to miss. Chapter 8 focuses on the eventual shift from primarily gestural expression of language with vocal accompaniment to primarily vocal production of language with gestural accompaniment.

Spoken language communication, it seems, is usually accompanied by visible behavior. We can easily imagine the converse: when sign language communication dominated, signers would have made and heard vocal sounds, and these would have contained information too. If this was the case, certain sounds would come in time to be used with certain portions of the signed utterances—just as in spoken language communities certain gestures occur regularly with certain spoken expressions (e.g., “I don’t know,” “no,” “maybe”). The incidental sounds would thus carry more information. Then, just as a gesture nowadays can express, without any speech at all, such meanings as those in the example, so the sounds of long ago could have expressed the meanings even if the associated gestures weren’t made or seen. This state of affairs—that either the gestural expression or the vocal expression serves for normal conversation—actually exists among some tribal peoples who keep to the old ways (see chapter 9). The relationship of speech to gesture and signed languages in various contemporary cultures is explored in chapter 10.

Chance and necessity, gesture-to-language-to-speech—these do not call for just a new way of looking at language. They suggest that we as a species, and as a literate society, could do better than we now do, both in rearing all our children, educating deaf children, and relating to deaf adults.

At this point I depart from the custom of making acknowledgments. In the first place, my present opinions and beliefs have been influenced by too many to name, virtually all who have been close to me, as far back as a great-grandmother. I like to think I inherited some of her spirit. She needed more embroidery floss one day when the menfolk were away, but she didn’t want to wait. Looking at the Model-T standing in the driveway, she told her daughter-in-law, “If you help me push it out to the hill, Mary, I think I can pedal it down.” No thought about driving it into town or getting it back up that hill, that formidable ess-curving hill that even my father’s 1925 Dodge coupe sometimes couldn’t climb in low gear! Some of the ideas here are similarly outrageous and will annoy many, so it’s better to keep the blame to myself. And of course, like Leon Lederman, many another whose words and ideas I lean on heavily will be identified as I do.

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