Review: Talking Hands
Posted by Neal on July 21, 2013
Margalit Fox, who writes obituaries for the New York Times, accompanied a team of linguists about 10 years ago to visit a remote “signing village” somewhere in Israel, where many of the inhabitants were hereditarily deaf, and most of them (i.e., many hearing people as well as deaf) regularly used an as-yet undocumented homegrown sign language now know as Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL). She was there for less than a week, and out of that experience she wrote the book Talking Hands, which was published in 2007, but which I came across just this year on a display shelf at the library.
How did Fox manage to stretch a three- or four-day visit into an entire book? By putting in a lot of background and related information, and going on lots of tangents, and doling out information about these villagers in bits and pieces in each chapter. But you know what? She wove it all together so masterfully that I learned much more about sign language in this one book than I did in the sign-language chapter in Language Files, in the few scholarly papers on sign languages (SLs) that I’ve read, and in the couple of talks about sign language that I’ve attended. In fact, one of those talks was Mark Aronoff‘s plenary lecture at the 2006 LSA conference in Albuquerque, and Mark Aronoff was (and still is) a member of that team of linguists, and he was talking about that very language! I fell asleep for a lot of that talk.
In the frame story, Fox describes the team members, tells about the Bedouin society that this village is part of, talks about the visits and recording sessions at different households in the village, and explains how circumstances cooperated to create a village with widespread deafness and widespread use of a sign language that was born by and large free of any influence from spoken language, or even other sign languages. She also conveys how endangered this language, only three generations old, already is, as the youngest generation moves toward Israeli sign language.
However, in between telling about what happened during her one visit, Fox also provides an excellent primer in the history of sign languages and sign-language linguistics. I’ll just list here the various topics she covers, in the order in which she covers them throughout the book:
- Oralism, the belief that SLs were nothing more than pantomime, and that deaf people should be discouraged from using them, and should instead focus on lip-reading and speech.
- The work of Ursula Bellugi and Edward Klima, a husband-and-wife team that did some of the pioneering work in SL linguistics.
- The life of Thomas H. Gallaudet and the birth of American Sign Language.
- The difference between structural linguistics and Chomskyan generative linguistics.
- The question of what kind of language would develop de novo–among infants with no influence from hearing any other language spoken or seeing any other language signed. (The idea of creating such conditions to find out is known among linguists as the Forbidden Experiment.)
- The necessary conditions for producing a signing village, i.e. a village with enough deaf people that sign language is regarded as a language, and is used by deaf and hearing people alike. Also other signing villages in history, including one on Martha’s Vineyard, and a Maya one.
- Crosslinguistic color terms, and classification of languages depending on which stage of color differentiation they have achieved. (ABSL is at Stage 1.)
- The life of William Stokoe, who defied prevailing wisdom in the 1950s to prove that ASL was a language complete with grammar, and identified the “phonological” features of ASL: place, handshape, and movement.
- A comparison of the linear syntax of spoken languages (i.e. words are arranged in time) and the spatial syntax of SLs (many pieces of information can be given simultaneously by using different areas of the space surrounding a signer).
- The sociolinguistics of whose accent (in any language) is perceived as the most beautiful or most proper.
- SLs as pidgin languages, including Nicaraguan Sign Language.
- Encoding grammatical relations (e.g. subject, direct object, indirect object) by syntax or morphology in spoken languages.
- More on the birth of ASL.
- Subject-verb agreement in SLs.
- Derivational morphology in SLs; for example, how you change a noun to a verb or vice-versa, or change one verb to another verb with a related meaning.
- Use of the face as an integral part of the grammar of SLs.
- Encoding grammatical relations in SLs. This is more interesting than it sounds. In fact, this part was so interesting that I told my son about it while we were waiting at the doctor’s office one day … and he agreed that it was interesting! He wasn’t just being polite, I tell you; he was intrigued. If you’ve ever found yourself frustrated at trying to keep track of numerous he‘s, she‘s, him‘s, and her‘s
by the tone of your voice in a complicated story (“…so she told her … and then she told her…”), you’ll be envious of how SLs handle this. I loved this line: “By the end of a long conversation, the air around the signer fairly bristles with these invisible pronouns.”
- The three morphosemantic classes of SL verbs that turn up in SL after SL.
- Classifiers in spoken languages and SLs. Again, don’t be fooled by the boring-sounding title. This was another eye-opening section for me, showing how in some ways SLs leave spoken languages in the dust when it comes to efficient information packaging.
- Differences between full-fledged SLs and “home sign” and spontaneous gestures.
- What production or reception errors reveal about language cognition, in spoken languages and SLs. Yes, there are SL spoonerisms.
- Ling 101 psycholinguistics, with the usual information about Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area.
- Different kinds of SL aphasia.
- The payoff for all the background spatial syntax and morphology, and subject-verb agreement, and grammatical relations, in other SLs: ABSL doesn’t have those things! The message that Mark Aronoff was trying to convey in that dark, warm auditorium on a winter evening in Albuquerque.
Now for a spoiler: What does studying this young SL, almost entirely free of the influence of other languages during its creation, tell us about language in general?
To judge from the natural Forbidden Experiment that is Al-Sayyid, what a language has at birth is words, and syntactic slots to put them in.
Just reading the description of this book on the cover or in the flyleaf, you’d think it’s mainly about this one language. Sure, it does say something about how this language teaches us about language in general, but that’s just to make it sound more important, right? Well, it keeps that promise (see spoiler above), but beyond that, Talking Hands is a fascinating, thorough, and very readable introduction to the basic facts about SLs that the average person might want to know, and that linguists should definitely want to know.