The Language of the Deaf

Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf

by Oliver Sacks
HarperCollins, 186 pp., $8.95 (paper)


Calling deafness “one of the most desperate of human calamities,” Dr. Johnson was expressing the classic “pathological” view of deafness: it is a physical defect. Unable to hear or speak, the deaf are usually thought to be cut off from language, and therefore from social life and from the knowledge and culture transmitted from previous generations.

But what if the deaf have their own language—not oral but signed—as rich and expressive as any oral language, and as suitable for discussing science, art, or any other topic? What if this language is central to an independent culture of the deaf, with its own history and traditions, its own art forms and poetry? The deaf would then have to be viewed not as sharing a common pathology, but as a linguistic and cultural minority. This is the “linguistic-cultural” view of deafness. It challenges the view of deafness as a pathological condition to be treated or corrected, and concentrates instead on a community with its own language, traditions, and culture.

The very term “deaf” is rooted in the pathological view of deafness, for it designates people whose status as “deaf” is determined solely by their inability to hear. This includes the “prelingually” deaf, who are born deaf or become deaf before learning to speak, and the “postlingually” deaf, who become deaf after acquiring an oral language. From the standpoint of the linguistic-cultural view of deafness, the crucial distinction is between those who use a sign language as their primary language—who are customarily designated by the word “Deaf”—and those who do not. People who cannot hear but do not sign or participate in the life and culture of a Deaf community are deaf but not Deaf. According to the linguistic-cultural view of deafness, to be deaf but not Deaf is indeed a calamity; inability to sign cuts one off from the Deaf community, just as inability to hear cuts one off from the hearing world. Learning to sign takes one from pathology to membership in a community with a rich culture that is passed on from generation to generation.

In Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks takes us on a personal journey from the pathological to the linguistic-cultural view of deafness. In his preface, Sacks states plainly:

I am, I should emphasize, an outsider in this field—I am not deaf, I do not sign, I am not an interpreter or teacher, I am not an expert on child development, and I am neither a historian nor a linguist.

The reader discovers that alongside the world we know there exists a parallel Deaf world—in some ways like the hearing world and in some ways very different.

Dr. Johnson’s view of deafness was not unreasonable before the late eighteenth century. Unable to acquire speech, the deaf were viewed as “dumb” or imbecilic and not recognized as persons under the law. Without literacy or education, they were limited to the most menial work…

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