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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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Napier does not suggest a distinct dividing line between the gestural and the linguistic, between nonlanguage and language. However, growth in the complexity of a gestural system entails the emergence of a conventionalized and componential substructure (phonology), rules for combining these elements (morphology), and methods for expressing relations among actions and objects (syntax). The emergence of these structures can be directly observed in the processes by which sign languages develop.

With regard to this functional approach to distinguishing linguistically organized from nonlinguistic gesture, it is important to understand recent developments in the discipline of linguistics, especially the controversies that have surrounded the elaboration of the nativist or generative school of linguistics founded by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s. These developments can be contrasted with an older, anthropological approach to linguistics and more recent progress in what has come to be called cognitive linguistics. At the heart of this controversy is the question of whether the human ability to construct and use languages is a genetically determined special trait or whether it emerges as a result of the application of more general cognitive abilities to the need to communicate about complex topics within social groups. Much about the regularity of the organization of spoken languages suggests a specific genetic determination. The well-known linguist and writer, Steven Pinker, summarizes this evidence as follows:

Chomsky’s claim that from a Martian’s-eye view all humans speak a single language is based on the discovery that the same symbol-manipulating machinery, without exception, underlies the world’s languages. Linguists have long known that the basic design features of language are found everywhere. Many were documented in 1960 by the non-Chomskyan linguist C. F. Hockett in a comparison between human languages and animal communication systems (Hockett was not acquainted with Martian). Languages use the mouth-to-ear channel as long as the users have intact hearing (manual and facial gestures, of course, are the substitute channel used by the deaf). A common grammatical code, neutral between production and comprehension, allows speakers to produce any linguistic message they can understand, and vice versa. Words have stable meanings, linked to them by arbitrary conventions. Speech sounds are treated discontinuously; a sound that is acoustically halfway between bat and pat does not mean something halfway between batting and patting. Languages can convey meanings that are abstract and remote in time or space from the speaker. Linguistic forms are infinite in number, because they are created by a discrete combinatorial system. Languages all show a duality of patterning in which one rule system is used to order phonemes within morphemes, independent of meaning, and another is used to order morphemes within words and phrases, specifying that meaning. (1994, 237–38)
It should be clear that sign languages might provide a test of the notion that languages are this rigorously constrained by genetic determination, in that, in contrast to spoken languages, they are organized within a completely different sensory medium, and they use a completely different set of musculoskeletal output systems. In fact, they have been used as evidence of both positions with respect to the biological foundation of the human capacity for language—specific genetic determination and general cognitive underpinnings. In this book, I will explore this question in some detail. According to linguists such as Pinker, there is language and notlanguage— there are no intermediate forms of communication or gradations between gesture and language. This book will argue that such gradations do exist and that gestural systems can become increasingly language-like through time and use. It will also be argued that, because of the fundamental iconicity of all sign languages, they do not have the sort of distinct duality of patterning that Pinker specifies as a hallmark of all languages. That is, on no level are the organizing principles of sign languages completely meaningless, as is true at the level of the phoneme in speech. For example, in sign languages big things are represented by big movements or spaces and small things are represented by small movements or spaces. Up means up and down means down, right means right and left means left, and so on. Nothing in speech compares to this. I also maintain categorically here that there is nothing primitive about this sort of organization—the sign languages of deaf people are complex and highly evolved, and they serve the same functions as the spoken languages of hearing people. It is just that they are transmitted and received in a different medium, and they take full advantage of that medium. As we will see, these languages have much to tell us about how to optimize communication in the visual medium, as our ability to exploit that medium expands exponentially through use of computers and the Internet.

With respect to their status as possible test cases, situations in which complex gestural or signing systems are known to have arisen include the following:

  • In social groups that include a large proportion of deaf people;
  • Among hearing people for use in situations where noise or distance impede vocal communication;
  • Among hearing people for use as a lingua franca;
  • Among hearing people who must be silent for religious or other reasons.
We will encounter examples of each of these cases, and this book will show what we can learn about the human capacity for language and communication by studying instances of human signing within a broad range of social contexts and geographic locations. A general goal will be to see what we can learn about the human condition in general by studying these exceptionally interesting examples of human behavior.
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