Here Thar Be Monsters!

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14.6.13

Give Us A Sign!

Our recent article on language and culture appears to have struck a chord with a number of readers, including our good and faithful correspondent Guy, who also inhabits jungles.  He forwarded the article to a friend whose response, in part, was:
Interesting article and very true about how powerful languages are! In some countries in Africa women have developed their own "secret languages" to express special contexts their husbands or man in general would not understand.

Wondering how precise people can talk in sign languages to express the words and contexts? Origin of language and its development is for sure very interesting.

 A very interesting question, and one which I've had occasion to study.  I have worked and socialized with a number of deaf people over the years, all of whom were profoundly deaf from birth.  Thus, they had never directly experienced spoken language.  They were also from different countries and regions of the US.

What I learned from the experience is that sign language is just as rich and subtle as any spoken language.  It has dialects and accents.  A signer from Germany would have as much problem understanding an American signer as any speaker would.  It's really a fascinating topic to research.

For example, a former boss of mine, whose name began with the letter "G", was a rather strange bird.  The deaf woman who worked in our department had a nickname for him: it was the sign for the letter "G" combined with the sign for "weird", which is a bobbing motion with the hand in front of the mouth in American Sign.

In fact, this is a common means for sign language to express subtle or complex ideas.  Different signs are combined in certain ways (there are rules of grammar) to express connotation and subtext.  The signs are combined with facial expressions, which is why signing is done at the chest and face level.  The reader must be able to see the face to get all of the deeper meanings and context.

In effect, this is no different than spoken languages.  Perhaps you've noticed that reading, writing or talking on the phone require additional effort to convey certain subtext, because the facial expressions are not available.

Few people stop to consider how important the face is in communicating.  It is why actors rehearse their roles in front of mirrors to get just the right face and body language into a line.  It is also why stage actors and clowns (no comment) use exaggerated makeup so that expressions can be read at a distance or for comedic effect.

Perhaps you've had occasion to speak with a stroke victim in your experience, especially one with severe paralysis of one half of the face.  You may have noticed, or at least felt, the strange sensation of trying to understand what they are saying because the facial clues were so distorted.  This is true of people with facial tics or other similar phenomena.  A signer who is unable to use their face is similarly handicapped when trying to convey information.

Most of us are so accustomed to taking language for granted that we never think about all the complex functions involved in using it.  The ability to speak or sign is only a small fraction of the tools used to communicate.  This is part of what makes film and TeeVee so powerful, when compared to radio or print.  Our ability to see the speaker vastly expands the information we receive, and how fast we receive it.

I haven't even touched on voice inflection here, which has it's own box of communication tools.  Even signers have inflections.  One can sign peacefully, or angrily, or confusedly.  If you become adept enough at the language, you can tell what part of a country someone is from by their signing "dialect".  If a Spanish signer learns English Sign, they will 'speak' with an accent.  It is a very curious and fascinating phenomenon.

Next time you meet a signer, ask them to show you the signs for "father", "mother" and "thank you".  If you are able to do this with signers from different countries, you'll come to appreciate just how subtle the languages are.  In English, the three signs will offer some interesting insight into subtext and connotation.  The sign for "father" can be combined with the letter "G" to express "God the Father" all in one motion.  I'll leave you to discern all the various emotional baggage that goes with that concept.  Also, giving signs on the left, right or mid-line of the body changes the tone.

Language is a powerful tool, and humans have devised myriad ways to express the subtlety and richness of the human experience.  That the alphabet or medium changes does not in any way affect the ability of the user to convey their thoughts and emotions.

Where the problem lies is in the templates that language imposes (or are imposed) on our thinking.  If we are not aware of the limits and do not consciously try to expand beyond them, then we are trapped in a limited world of experience, unable to perceive or communicate experiences which fall outside the range of our language.  Those experiences are the things that inhabit the realms of fear and religion (but I repeat myself).

Do yourself and the world a favor.  Go out and enroll in a language class today.  Expand your horizons in a month or so with that one simple act.

Pretty soon, those places on the map of consciousness emblazoned with the words, "Here thar be monsters!", will get smaller and smaller until they disappear altogether.