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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education

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(3) If I wanted to designate an acquaintance who had the same name as some familiar object, such as L’Enfant du Bois, La Rivière [Woodchild, River], I would avoid using the sign for a child, wood, a river, or the like; I would certainly meet with incomprehension by my deaf friends who would see no connection between a man and a river, and so on, and would laugh at me. But knowing that our language depicts the proper idea of something and not the arbitrary names given them in spoken language, I would designate these persons by their individual characteristics, as I explained a short while back.

Similarly, if I wanted to mention a prince of the blood, then once I had made the signs for a lord, I would be ill-advised to make the sign for the blood running throughout veins—that is merely the sign for a word. I would take my signs from the degree of relationship between the prince and the sovereign.

(4) The sign for the class of tradesmen is different from the sign for manufacturers who sell their own products, for the deaf have the good sense not to confuse these two occupations. They regard as true tradesmen only people who buy something in order to resell it as is. The generally sign we use to designate these tradesmen gives the idea of as is. With the thumb and index finger, we take the hem of a garment or some other object and present it the way a tradesman offers his merchandise; we then make the movement for counting money with our hands, and cross our arms like someone resting. The combination of these three signs denotes the class of tradesmen in the strict sense.

The action of working is the sign common to the class of manufacturers, artisans, and laborers. An additional sign is required to show that the object of discussion is a supervisor. Then we raise the index finger and lower it in a commanding way—that is the sign common to all supervisors. We also use it to talk about a shopkeeper as distinct from a street vendor. If we want to indicate directly someone from these classes, we need merely designate the tradesman’s type of business or the manufacturer’s product along with his residence, or the most appropriate sign for individuating him.

Thus, when necessity or expressive clarity demands, we always mention the social class of the person we are speaking about or wish to introduce.

You will realize that this simple, natural means of communication spares the imagination a great deal of trouble and work. We guide the imagination this way—as if by degrees—toward the object we wish to represent. This procedure puts order in our ideas and enables us to understand who is being referred to with fewer signs than spoken words giving his first name, last name, and individual characteristics.

With procedures similar to this, we will need merely two or three signs to designate any one of a family with some ten children.

(5) But I am committed to proving an even stronger claim. Paris is so large that one is obliged to have a written address for people whose residence one is trying to find for the first time, and despite this precaution it is often difficult to locate the dwelling in question. Nevertheless, I can successfully direct any illiterate deaf friend of mine to any building in Paris, whether shop or townhouse or first or sixth-floor room, provided that I have once seen it myself. I would use fewer signs to give him the person’s address than I would write in words.

(6) What I have said about signs for each social class can also be extended to any object that we want to indicate individually when the idea of it is remote or the natural sign for it does not immediately present itself or, finally, when the natural sign by itself is insufficiently expressive. In this case we make the general sign for this object. If, for example, I am talking about a piece of pastry the sign for which also applies to some object, I would precede the sign with the sign for the general category of pastry. Then a deaf person could not be mistaken about the sign expressing the kind of pastry I am talking about, for his imagination will be focused on the particular class I have in mind.


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