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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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It has been judged that a writer as unusual as I may he permitted to say a few words about himself. I have taken this advice and shall conclude this preface with some personal details.

I became deaf and mute following a dreadful attack of smallpox at the age of seven. The two accidents of deafness and mutism occurred at the same time and, so to speak, without my realizing it. During my illness, which lasted nearly two years, my lips became so slack that I can close them only with great effort or the assistance of my hand. In addition I lost all my teeth; it is chiefly to these two causes that I attribute my mutism. Beyond that, it happens that when I try to speak, air escapes and the sound I make is just inchoate. I can utter long words only with great hardship, by constantly breathing in new air which, again escaping, makes my pronunciation unintelligible to strangers. One can reproduce my speech fairly accurately by trying to speak with the mouth open, without closing lips or teeth.2

I have been asked a million times whether I still have some idea of sounds, particularly the sounds of speech. Here is everything I can say about that.

First, at more than fifteen or twenty paces I detect all fairly loud sounds, not from using my totally blocked ears, but from the simple disturbance. In my room I can distinguish a passing coach from the beating of a drum.

When I put my hand to a violin or flute being played, I can hear some indistinct sound, even with my eyes closed.3 I can easily distinguish the sound of a violin from that of a flute, but without my hand on the instrument I can make out absolutely nothing.

It is the same with speech. I cannot hear a speaker unless I have my hand on his throat or the back of his neck. With my eyes closed I can still hear him talking into an empty cardboard box in my hands but it is impossible for me to hear any other way. I can also easily distinguish the sound of the human voice from any other sound. I have even tried to see whether I could not manage to form a fairly distinct idea of the various articulations of my acquaintances which would enable me, by putting my hand on their throats and the back of their necks, to recognize them in the dark. I was unsuccessful in doing this but it still seems to me possible.

Furthermore, the different ideas I have of sounds are the same as those of my deaf comrades, some of whom hear much better than I. I do not know whether they use their ears or detect the simple disturbance, for several do not have stopped-up ears like mine.4

At the beginning of my infirmity, and for as long as I was living apart from other deaf people, my only resource for self-expression was writing or my poor pronunciation. I was for a long time unaware of sign language. I used only scattered, isolated, and unconnected signs. I did not know the art of combining them to form distinct pictures with which one can represent various ideas, transmit them to one’s peers, and converse in logical discourse. The first person to teach me this useful art was a man congenitally deaf, Italian by nationality, and illiterate; he was employed as a servant in the household of an actor in the Italian Comedy. He later worked in several great houses, notably that of the prince of Nassau. I became acquainted with this man when I was twenty-seven, eight years after I had settled in Paris.

I think that this is enough talk about me and that a longer treatment of such a minor subject would try my readers’ patience.

Parisian society, and indeed all of Europe, rang with praises rightfully due the abbé de l’Epée and his simple, ingenious method of teaching the deaf in sign language. The worthy teacher gives public lessons; this way a crowd of onlookers could appreciate the excellence of his method which leads his pupils with incredible speed and ease to reading, writing, and a knowledge of several languages, then to the pronunciation and understanding of spoken language through the inspection of the movements of the vocal apparatus. Several monarchs have deigned personally to verify the wonders of


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