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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Show of Hands: A Natural History of Sign Language

David F. Armstrong

Chapter One
Seeing Is Believing

A constellation of anatomical and social peculiarities distinguish human beings from other mammals. These anatomical attributes include upright posture with a striding bipedal gait; relative hairlessness; a brain that is large in comparison to the size of the rest of the body; aspects of the dentition and the anatomy of the jaw and throat; and, most significantly for purposes of this book, an exceptionally dexterous hand with full opposability of the thumb to the other digits. It is particularly instructive to look at these anatomical peculiarities in comparison with similar attributes of our closest living relatives, the higher primates—in particular the great apes of Africa. We will also consider the social arrangements of these primates as they compare to those of humans—in this regard, we will be particularly concerned with the need for complex and often subtle communication systems that support flexible and dynamic small-group interactions.

History of the Human Hand

Why start a book about human sign languages with a discussion of our relationships to our primate relatives? Human beings have long indulged in speculation about the origins of their languages. Visible gesture and the signed languages of the deaf have, as we will see, figured prominently is this speculative literature. Because some scholars have argued that the original human languages were gestural or signed languages, as we attempt to reconstruct their histories it is worth returning to the beginnings of the human lineage. However, this book does not explicitly make the argument for a gestural origin of human language. That has been done elsewhere by a number of authors, including this one. This book illustrates the important ways in which these visible languages have enriched human culture in general and shows how their study has expanded knowledge of the human condition, from the point of view of the Western intellectual tradition in particular.

Human visible gestures can involve virtually all parts of the human body that can be seen by a person’s interlocutor, and it is now well known that this is equally true of the sign languages of deaf people—languages that were once referred to as “manual.” It is important, therefore, to explain why this book takes the apparently anachronistic approach of concerning itself primarily with the expression of those languages through symbolic activity of the hands. It is argued here that these symbolic activities have a special importance in the expression of signed languages and a significance in human culture that frequently rises to a mystical level. This is simply because of the hand’s dexterousness, as mentioned above. The hand is capable of degrees of contrast with respect to symbolic distinctions that gestural behavior involving other parts of the body, for example through changes in facial expression, is not.

Symbolism involving the hands, especially the distinction between the right and the left hand, is ubiquitous in human culture and was a focus of early cross-cultural anthropological research. What this pan-cultural symbolic attribution highlighted, of course, is another uniquely human trait—handedness—and the predominance of the right hand in particular. Although there may be precursors to human handedness among the African apes (see figure 1), nothing exists in the nonhuman primate world that approaches the universal development of skilled behavior by the right hand among modern human populations. It has been known, moreover, since the work of the French anthropologist, Paul Broca, in the nineteenth century, that handedness and aspects of the production of spoken language generally depend upon structures in the left cerebral cortex of the human brain.

Fig. 1. Hands of human and chimpanzee. Illustration by Robert C. Johnson.

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