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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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I recall once being with a hearing person holding a small black cane and asking her in sign language what the cane was made of. She answered aloud, “of whale.” Uncomprehending, I entreated her to explain it to me in sign. She made several ridiculous gestures that could apply to a number of animals. As she perceived that I did not understand at all, she asked for a pencil to write the word down. A deaf friend of mine who was present and who had recognized the substance, immediately made the gestures for a fish swimming and then for a gigantic animal. These two signs were sufficient to make clear to me that the cane was made of whalebone, for the first gesture had indicated the general category of fish. Such are the general and particular signs we use in our language.

We can reduce all signs to three general classes, and by combining and uniting them, we can express every possible idea.

(1) Ordinary or basic signs. These are signs in frequent conversational use all over the world for a multiplicity of ideas for which a gesture is handier and more expressive than speech. We generally find them in all parts of speech, especially pronouns and interjections. As I have stated, these signs are natural to all people, but hearing people make them unreflectively and without thinking about them, whereas the deaf always use them deliberately to present their ideas and make them palpable.

I am not thereby claiming that my deaf friends have an exact understanding of the function of a pronoun or article or verb or any other part of speech. They are as utterly ignorant of all this as are three-quarters of all hearing people. Even so, if we asked them the reasons for the three signs they make to express the phrase je le veux (I want it), they would have no trouble answering that: they place their index finger on their breast to indicate that the matter is in them and of them alone; they raise and lower the same index finger with a commanding air to express their will; they point the same index finger at the thing they have in mind so as to indicate the object or term of their will.

(2) Reflected signs. They represent objects that have—in absolute terms—their natural signs, but still require a bit of reflection before being combined and understood. I have given several examples of these signs in my discussion of general and particular signs.

(3) Analytic signs. These are the signs rendered natural through analysis. They aim to represent ideas that do not, strictly speaking, have any natural signs and so in sign language are based on analysis. It was analytic signs especially and also reflected ones that the abbé de l’Epée subjected to methodical rules so as to facilitate instruction.

Here is my explanation of how this analysis works. I have no knowledge of metaphysics or grammar or the sciences requiring advanced study. But good sense and reason tell me that it will seem impossible at first to produce a visual representation of the idea, alone and isolated, of an object absolutely independent of the senses.

If, on the other hand, I can imagine secondary ideas to accompany this first idea, I find a host of natural signs that I combine in a twinkling and that express this idea very clearly. I have previously given an example (p. 21) when I dealt with the word “God.”

It is the same with ideas that are more concrete but that can still be expressed only with the help of analysis. For example, in talking about an ambassador I may not immediately hit upon a natural sign for the idea, but in going back to the secondary ideas I make the signs for a king who sends a lord to another king to discuss weighty issues; then a deaf person from Peking will get the idea as fast as a deaf person from Paris.9

The abbé de l’Epée gives a good explanation (Instruction of the Deaf, p. 144) of the signs needed to express the idea dégénérer [degenerate], the same signs as those used by my deaf comrades. So we always find signs for a main idea by the analysis of its auxiliary ideas.

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