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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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Deschamps makes a great mystery of the supposedly wondrous art of hearing with the eyes, that is, understanding speech from the movements of the lips, tongue, and cheeks. All my acquaintances know that the persons I live with scarcely speak to me in any other way, without needing to make a sound, provided that the articulation is clear and distinct. Nonetheless, I have received no instruction in this matter. Nature alone has been my guide.

Lipreading is so simple that any deaf person can learn it by himself once he knows the meaning of the spoken words. The only thing needed is for persons wishing to address him this way to speak deliberately and distinctly, to open their mouths enough for the deaf person to observe the mechanism of their speech, and finally, to put fairly strong stress on each constituent syllable, and to pause briefly at the end of each word. I believe I have now said enough to effect a reconciliation between the abbé Deschamps and sign language. Nevertheless, to throw still more light on this language, I shall, as I have promised, [preface, p. 3], briefly explain how my friends use sign language without taking lessons from any teacher except nature.

Furthermore I would like to declare, before I go any further, that it is not my intention to belittle the author whom I have taken the liberty of criticizing. I laud and respect his zeal for a kind of work that cannot be overencouraged. He is too good a thinker to take offense at my remarks, and if he considers them unprejudicially, he will soon recognize that I had no intention of slighting him. In addition, he confesses [p. iv] that he has taken only a few steps forward in this difficult field, so he still has a chance to regain the proper course and to acquire a better idea of this inadequately investigated language; this is the main purpose of the new observations that we are going to read about here and that will conclude this book.8

The abbé Deschamps is not alone in supposing that [p. 37] the abbé de l’Epée was the creator of sign language. But this opinion is untenable, for I have already shown that my illiterate comrades who do not attend the gifted teacher’s school make extensive use of sign language, that they possess the art of giving a visual representation of their thoughts and ideas, and even the ones most independent of the senses.

Here are some examples that explain in greater detail the wonderful but simple and natural mechanism of this language as we use it.

(I) To designate some close acquaintance, we need only two or three signs. First, we make a general sign indicating the person’s sex by putting the hand to the hat or breast; we then make a special sign for individuating this person. But more signs are needed to name more distant acquaintances of whom we have only a rough idea or whom we know only by reputation. First, we indicate the person’s sex (this sign must always come first); then we make the sign for the person’s social class as determined by his birth and fortune. Then we individuate this person with signs taken from his profession, residence, and the like. This operation requires no more time than is required to mention, say, “M. de Lorme, draper, rue Saint-Denis.”

In further conversation we have no need to repeat the same number of signs to designate the same person. In fact, that would be as pointless as always repeating someone’s first and last names plus all his attributes.

(2) We have two different signs for designating nobility. We divide it into two classes, upper and lower. To mention the upper nobility, we move the flat of the left hand to the right shoulder and draw it down to the left hip. Then we spread the fingers and place the hand over the heart. We designate the lower nobility by tracing a small band with the fingertip and a cross on the buttonhole of the suit. Then, to indicate someone from either class of nobility, we use signs taken from his occupation, coat of arms, livery, and such, or the most natural signs for individuating him.


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