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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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The author adds the following note to the passage just cited:

As for the perfectibility of sign language, we know the surprising things reported about the mutes of the sultan [harem eunuchs]. If anyone has the slightest doubt about the possibility of the fact, let him attend the daily lessons given by the abbé de l’Epée, and with admiration mingled with poignancy he will see him surrounded by a crowd of mutes whom he instructs with disinterested zeal. His primary means of instruction is a mimic or sign language so perfected that every idea has its own distinct sign, always taken from nature or something as close to it as possible. Analogous ideas are represented by analogous signs suitable for making their interconnections and interrelations concretely felt. With these signs, his pupils understand and give precise expression to the subtlest metaphysical analysis of language and the most abstract ideas. It is a kind of simplified, improved hieroglyphic language that includes everything and employs gestures to depict what the Chinese language depicts with characters. (p. 22)

The abbé de Condillac distinguishes two kinds of action language, one a natural language whose signs are given by biological constitution, the other an artificial language whose signs are given by analogy. He remarks:

The abbé de l’Epée, who displays a singular wisdom in instructing the deaf, has made the action language into a simple and easy and systematic art for giving his pupils ideas of all kinds—ideas, I venture to say, more exact and precise than those usually acquired with the help of hearing. Because in childhood we are reduced to judging the meaning of words from the circumstances in which we hear them uttered, it frequently happens that we grasp this meaning only approximately—we have only a loose grasp of it and we make do with this approximation all our lives. It is different with the deaf instructed by the abbé de l’Epée. He has only one way to give them ideas that lie beyond the senses; namely, to analyze and to get his pupils to analyze the ideas with him. So he leads them from concrete ideas to abstract ideas by simple and methodical analyses; and we can see how advantageous his action language is over the spoken sounds of our governesses and tutors.

The abbé de l’Epée teaches his pupils French, Latin, Italian, and Spanish. And he dictates to them in these four languages with the same action language. Why so many languages? To enable foreigners to judge his method, and he flatters himself that he may find someone in authority to found an establishment for the education of the deaf. He himself has created one, sacrificing some of his own funds. I thought it my duty to seize the opportunity to give due credit to the talents of this generous citizen who, I believe, does not know me, although I have been at his school and have seen his pupils, and he has given me full information about this method (Vol. I, footnote, p. ii).


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