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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
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If we think of a disability as something that reduces a person’s capacity to function within a certain domain of behavior, then we might not classify blindness and deafness as sensory disabilities. Instead, we might say that blindness is primarily a mobility impairment and that deafness is a communication (but not language) disability. While we can readily understand this difference between the blind and the deaf, it is important to note that it is firmly rooted in the evolutionary history of the primates. The higher primates evolved as arboreal creatures that traveled rapidly from tree to tree through forest habitats by leaping and grasping limbs with their hands and feet. Vision was their master sense, and their hands and feet had to remain generalized, for grasping and manipulating objects, as well as for locomotion. Again, it is hard to imagine a blind arboreal monkey surviving past infancy, but all human societies include blind adults. One contributing factor is that blind people do not suffer from an inability to communicate their special needs through speech. Blind people might in some situations be seen as having special functions—as in the case of the probably legendary Homer, as a keeper of the oral (auditory) tradition.

On the other hand, the primary difficulty experienced by deaf people is precisely in the realm of communication, and in this regard we will consider the circumstances under which visible/gestural languages may develop and spread. This book argues that a central part of the human adaptation is intensive development of the higher primate capacity for successful group action, which, of course depends ultimately on the ability to communicate effectively. This book is not about the visible gestures that ordinarily and spontaneously accompany informal speech in all known human societies—instead it is about what is known of the history of visible gestures, especially those involving the hands, and signs that serve functions distinct from speech (although this distinction cannot always be precisely maintained, and we will occasionally stray into the former realm of discourse for illustrative purposes).

What Is Language?

This book uses a utilitarian definition of language. All human societies so far identified on Earth have languages, and if the users are not deaf, their primary language will be spoken. If they are deaf and are left unmolested by educators, physicians, and linguists, their primary language will be signed. We can take it as axiomatic, therefore, that all human beings have the capacity to develop and acquire languages in media that are accessible to their operating senses and musculoskeletal output systems. If we find a sign system operating as the primary mode of communication for a definable social group, we can conclude that it is a language. Sign systems used as secondary modes of communication, as are some encountered in this book, may be more problematic in this regard. Language scholars have, in the past, developed checklists of essential attributes of languages—for example the design features enumerated by Charles Hockett in 1960. This book avoids detailed formal definitions but includes for consideration and examination sign systems that appear capable of supporting the weight of most ordinary human interactions.

This work assumes that a continuum of linguistic complexity of manual gesture exists, from isolated gestures accompanying speech to full-fledged visible languages expressed fully in the sign languages of deaf communities. This capacity for linguistic elaboration is always there to be tapped, when needed or desired, in all human populations. The existence of this continuum presupposes fundamental processes whereby originally transparent or iconic signs become increasingly opaque or arbitrary through conventionalization or ritualization. Adam Kendon suggests that what is involved is not a simple one-dimensional continuum from more iconic to more conventionalized, however. Simple but conventionalized gestures that accompany speech may be more or less iconic, or not iconic at all. With respect to the latter point, Kendon (2004, 106) discusses the so-called “ring” hand, in sign language notation the ‘F’ hand. This is generally used to express approbation for a point made in conversation or for “perfection”—it is widely understood, and therefore conventionalized, but it does not appear iconic in any obvious way. The hands can be used to signify or denote a huge variety of concepts, and the shapes that do the signifying are subject to complex processes of conventionalization through use. The central argument being advanced, however, is that the potential for direct iconic representation by the hands provides the great wellspring for the emergence of new signs and, ultimately, the emergence of new human languages.

Fig. 4. The “F” handshape. Illustration by Robert C. Johnson.

Before leaving this topic, however, it is worth considering an argument that suggests that the “ring” hand, OK gesture, or ‘F’ hand—however designated—may, in fact, have iconic roots deep in the evolutionary history of the human lineage (see figure 4). As the eminent anatomist and evolutionary anthropologist, John Napier, wrote:

In man, the most precise function that the hand is capable of is to place the tip of the thumb in opposition to the tip of the index finger so that the pulps of the two digits make maximum contact. In this position, small objects can be manipulated with an unlimited potential for fine pressure adjustments or minute directional corrections. Opposition, to this degree of precision, is a hallmark of mankind. No nonhuman primate can replicate it. Although most people are unaware of the evolutionary symbolism of this finger-thumb opposition they cannot be unaware of its implication in international sign language; it is the universal gesture of human success. (1970, 181)

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