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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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An adequate acquaintance with sign language requires no more than six weeks of training. Now what language could even the greatest genius profess to learn in six weeks? Wishing to devote himself to the education of the deaf, Deschamps should perhaps have begun by getting instruction for a like period of time in the abbé de l’Epée’s school. This unusually honest and open teacher would have delighted in sharing his knowledge with him. With more knowledge of sign language, the abbé Deschamps would have spoken more accurately about it than he does in his book.

He commits a major error in suggesting [pp. 12, 18, 34] that, for the deaf, sign language is limited to physical things and bodily needs.

That is true for those who are deprived of the company of other deaf people or who are abandoned in asylums or isolated somewhere in the provinces. This also unquestionably proves that we usually do not learn sign language from hearing people. But matters are completely different for the deaf living in society in a great city like Paris, for example, which we can rightfully call the epitome of the marvels of the universe. On such a stage as this our ideas are elaborated and extended by our opportunities for constantly observing new and interesting objects.

Therefore, when a deaf person encounters other deaf people more highly educated than he, as I myself have experienced [preface, p. 11], he learns to combine and improve his signs, which had hitherto been unordered and unconnected. In intercourse with his fellows he promptly acquires the supposedly difficult art of depicting and expressing all his thoughts, even those most independent of the senses, using natural signs with as much order and precision as if he understood the rules of grammar. Once again I must be believed, for I have been in this situation myself and speak only from my own experience.

There are congenitally deaf people, Parisian laborers, who are illiterate and who have never attended the abbé de l’Epée’s lessons, who have been found so well instructed about their religion, simply by means of signs, that they have been judged worthy of admittance to the holy sacraments, even those of the eucharist and marriage. No event—in Paris, in France, or in the four corners of the world—lies outside the scope of our discussion. We express ourselves on all subjects with as much order, precision, and rapidity as if we enjoyed the faculty of speech and hearing.

So it would be a gross mistake to regard us as some species of automata fated merely to vegetate in the world. Nature has not been as cruel to us as is commonly assumed; it always compensates in one of the senses for what is absent in the others. The privation of hearing makes us more attentive in general. Our ideas concentrated in ourselves, so to speak, necessarily incline us toward reflectiveness and meditation. The language we use among ourselves, being a faithful image of the object expressed, is singularly appropriate for making our ideas accurate and for extending our comprehension by getting us to form the habit of constant observation and analysis.5 This language is lively; it portrays sentiment, and develops the imagination. No other language is more appropriate for conveying great and strong emotions.

To promote the development of the language the abbé Deschamps seems to advocate a dictionary of signs [p. 33]. A book like this would indeed be a suitable aid to the imagination; it could be the seed of a universal language for all the peoples of the world, since all objects have the same features in all countries. Surprisingly, scholars concerned with many different subjects, often with trifles, are still unaware of this undertaking. In the meantime, however, while we await the enjoyment of this dictionary, let us agree that it exists potentially, for everything, absolutely everything in nature carries with it its own sign. In sign language we find verbs, nouns, pronouns of every kind, articles, genders, cases, tenses, modals, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, and so on. Finally, there is nothing in any part of speech that cannot be expressed in sign language.6

The abbé Deschamps, always restricting sign language to physical and material things (to suit his ideas, apparently), claims that if we allow sign language to express morality, the past, and the future, the expression of a single word entails paraphrases and perpetual circumlocutions of signs [p. 18].


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