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Experience: Classics in Language and Education|
He could not have chosen a worse example to support this claim. If we want, he says [p. 19], to use sign language to express the idea of God, we will indicate the sky where the Almighty resides. We will say that everything we see is the work of His hands. Then who can assure us that the deaf person will not take the firmament for God Himself, and so forth?
It is I who can assure him, for when I want to designate the Supreme Being by indicating the sky, which is His dwelling place or rather His stepping-stone, I accompany my gesture with an air of adoration and respect that makes my intention quite evident. The abbé Deschamps himself could make no mistake about it. On the other hand, if I want to speak of the sky or the firmament, I will make the same gesture unaccompanied by any of these auxiliaries. So it is easily seen that the two expressions “God’ and “firmament” contain no ambiguity or circumlocution.
Nor is there any greater ambiguity or circumlocution in the expression of the past or the future; often our expression in sign will even be shorter than in speech. We need, for example, only two signs to express what you say in three words: la semaine prochaine [next week], le mois qui vient [next month], l’année dernière [next year] The phrase le mois qui vient contains four words; nevertheless I use only two signs for it, one for the month and one for the future, the signs for the article le and for the relative pronoun qui being superfluous (although these latter signs are on occasion necessary). In addition, all these signs are at least as brief as speech.
It can be truly asserted that Deschamps’s claims about sign language are inconsistent and contradictory. After all his harangues against it in twenty places in his book, after first declaring and continually repeating that its employment is highly restricted and that, outside the narrow confines of natural needs and physical ideas, sign language was just a tissue of ambiguity, arbitrariness, difficulty, complications, and so on, here is his justified praise of it [p. 38]. Referring to the abbé de l’Epée, he writes, “In this language of signs he discovered the art of portraying all ideas, all thoughts, all sensations. He has made signs as combinable and variable as the languages we normally use to portray all things in the moral or physical world. Abstract ideas, as well as those we form with the help of the senses—anything lies within the province of sign language . . . Sign language can supplant speech. It is quickly performed, clear in its principles, without too many difficulties in its execution.”
After this splendid encomium, wouldn’t anyone think that the abbé Deschamps was retracting his erroneous claims about sign language? Be not deceived, reader. Here, directly following the praise you have just read, in his conclusion.
“However wonderful this method, we still do not follow it.” One is not expecting such a come-down; it is worthy of a person who could suggest that “deaf people’s inclination to express themselves in signs does not prove that this is the best medium for their education” [p. ii]; “the meaning of things is no more difficult for the deaf to acquire through speech than through signs” [p. 21], and so on, and so on.
It would be a waste of time to refute assertions like this. The mere mention of them is enough to bring out their falsity. Moreover, the abbé Deschamps readily lends himself to refutation, for as we have already seen many times, all we have to do to set him in opposition to himself.
One of his strongest objections to sign language is that it is useless in the dark [p. 163]. At first blush this claim seems plausible; nevertheless, it is as ill-founded as the others. Put me in a dark room with a deaf friend, and I will tell him with signs to run some errand, in Paris or in the outskirts; I will inform him about any event you like and I will need no more signs than I use in daylight. The signing would simply take somewhat longer; but it will he a hundred times quicker and easier than the two procedures that our author has invented [p. 163], which consist in touching the speaker’s lips or in fingerspelling in the deaf person’s palm.