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Mysteries of the Deaf

In the sixteenth century the notion that the understanding of ideas did not depend upon the hearing of words was revolutionary.

But it is not (usually) the ideas of philosophers that change reality; nor, conversely, is it the practice of ordinary people. What changes history, what kindles revolutions, is the meeting of the two. A lofty mind—that of the great Abbé de l’Epée—had to meet a humble usage—the indigenous sign language of the poor deaf who roamed Paris—in order to make possible a momentous transformation. If we ask why this meeting had not occurred before, it has something to do with the vocation of the Abbé, who could not bear to think of the souls of the deaf-mute living and dying unshriven, deprived of the Catechism, the Scriptures, the Word of God; and it is partly owing to his humility, that he listened to the deaf; partly to a philosophical and linguistic idea then very much in the air—that of universal language, like the speceium of which Leibniz dreamed. Thus, de l’Epée approached sign language not with contempt but with awe:

The universal language that your scholars have sought for in vain and of which they have despaired, is here; it is right before your eyes, it is the mimicry of the impoverished deaf. Because you do not know it, you hold it in contempt, yet it alone will provide you with the key to all languages.

That this was a misapprehension—for sign language is not a universal language in this grand sense, and Leibniz’s noble dream was probably a chimera—did not matter, was even an advantage. For what mattered was that the Abbé paid minute attention to his pupils, acquired their language (which had scarcely ever been done by the hearing before). And then, by associating signs with pictures and written words, he taught them to read; and with this, in one swoop, he opened to them the world’s learning and culture. De l’Epée invented a system of “methodical” signs that enabled deaf students to write down what was said to them through a signing interpreter—a method so successful that, for the first time, it enabled ordinary deaf pupils to read and write French, and thus acquire an education. His school, founded in 1755, was the first to achieve public support. He trained a multitude of teachers for the deaf, who, by the time of his death in 1789, had established twenty-one schools for the deaf in France and Europe. The future of de l’Epée’s own school seemed uncertain during the turmoil of revolution, but in 1791 it was taken over by the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Paris, and headed by the brilliant grammarian Sicard. De l’Epée’s own book, as revolutionary as Copernicus’ in its own way, was first published in 1776.

De l’Epée’s book, a classic, is available in all languages. But what has not been available, has been virtually unknown, are the equally important (and, in some ways, even more fascinating) original writings of the deaf—the first deaf-mutes ever able to write. Professor Lane has done a great service in making these so readily available to us now. Especially moving and important are the Observations of Pierre Desloges (1779), now available in English for the first time. Desloges himself, deafened at an early age, and virtually without speech, provides us first with a frightening description of the world, or unworld, of the languageless:

At the beginning of my infirmity, and for as long as I was living apart from other deaf people…I was unaware of sign language. I used only scattered, isolated, and unconnected signs. I did not know the art of combining them to form distinct pictures with which one can represent various ideas, transmit them to one’s peers, and converse in logical discourse.

Thus Desloges, though obviously a highly gifted man, could scarcely entertain “ideas,” or engage in “logical discourse,” until he had acquired sign language (which, as is usual with the deaf, he learned from someone deaf, in his case from an illiterate deaf-mute). Desloges, though highly intelligent, was intellectually disabled—and, specifically, to use the word that the British neurologist Hughlings-Jackson was to use a century later in regard to the disabilities attendant on aphasia, he was unable to “propositionize.” It is worth clarifying this by quoting Hughlings-Jackson’s own words:

We do not either speak or think in words or signs only, but in words or signs referring to one another in a particular manner…. Without a proper interrelation of its parts, a verbal utterance would be a mere succession of names, a word-heap, embodying no proposition…. The unit of speech is a proposition. Loss of speech (aphasia) is, therefore, the loss of power to propositionize…not only loss of power to propositionize aloud (to talk), but to propositionize either internally or externally…. The speechless patient has lost speech, not only in the popular sense that he cannot speak aloud, but in the fullest sense. We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.

This is why, earlier, I spoke of prelingual deafness as being potentially far more devastating than blindness. For it may dispose, unless this is averted, to a condition of being virtually without language—and of being unable to “propositionize”—which must be compared to aphasia, a condition in which thinking itself may remain incoherent and stunted. The languageless deaf may indeed be as if imbecilic, and in a particularly cruel way, in that intelligence, though present and perhaps abundant, is locked up so long as the lack of language lasts. Thus the Abbé Sicard is right, as well as poetic, when he writes of “opening up the doors of Massieu’s intelligence for the first time.”

Nothing is more wonderful, or more to be celebrated, than something that will unlock a person’s capacities and allow him to grow and think, and no one praises or portrays this with such fervor or eloquence as these suddenly liberated mutes:

The [sign] language we use among ourselves, being a faithful image of the object expressed, is singularly appropriate for making our ideas accurate and for extending our comprehension by getting us to form the habit of constant observation and analysis. This language is lively; it portrays sentiment, and develops the imagination. No other language is more appropriate for conveying strong and great emotions.

(Pierre Desloges, 1779)

But even de l’Epée was unaware, or could not believe, that sign language was a complete language, capable of expressing any syntactic relation, and enabling its users to discuss any topic, concrete or abstract, as economically and effectively as speech. It was indeed his ignorance or incredulity in this that led him to propose, and impose, his entirely superfluous, indeed absurd, system of “Methodical Signs,” which to some extent retarded the education and communication of the deaf.


De L’Epée’s error continues, two centuries later, in our current misguided attempts to replace the natural sign language of the deaf—American Sign Language (“Ameslan” or ASL), British Sign Language, etc.—with so-called Signed Exact English, which is not a true language, but a clumsy chimera that tries to produce a sign for each English word. Desloges realized clearly, in the 1770s, what was only rigorously demonstrated (by the linguists Edward Klima and Ursula Bellugi) in the 1970s,10 that native sign languages are complete and need no intermediaries.

This indeed has always been evident, if only implicitly, to all native signers, but has always been denied by the hearing and speaking, who, however well intentioned, regard signing as something rudimentary, primitive, pantomimic, a poor thing. De l’Epée had this delusion—and it remains an almost universal delusion of the hearing now. On the contrary, it might be maintained that not only is Sign the equal of speech, but is in some ways superior, lending itself equally to the rigorous and the poetic—to philosophical analysis or to making love—with an ease that is greater than that of speech. (At the end of this article I will present a remarkable piece of evidence showing that, if learned as a primary language, Sign may be used and maintained by the hearing as a continuing and even at times preferred alternative to speech.)

The philosopher Condillac, who at first had seen the deaf as “sentient statues” or “ambulatory machines,” incapable of thought or any connected mental activity, coming incognito to de l’Epée’s classes, became a convert, and provided the first philosophic endorsement of his method and of sign language:

From the language of action de l’Epée has created a methodical, simple, and easy art with which he gives his pupils ideas of every kind, and, I daresay, ideas more precise than the ones usually acquired with the help of hearing. When as children we are reduced to judging the meaning of words from the circumstances in which we hear them, it often happens that we grasp the meaning only approximately, and we are satisfied with this approximation all our lives. It is different with the deaf taught by de l’Epée. He has only one means for giving them sensory ideas; it is to analyze and to get the pupil to analyze with him. So he leads them from sensory to abstract ideas; we can judge how advantageous de l’Epée’s action language is over the speech sounds of our governesses and tutors.

From Condillac to the public at large, who also flocked to de l’Epée’s and Sicard’s demonstrations, there came an enormous and generous change of heart, a welcoming of the previously outcast into human society. There opened out the golden period I have mentioned, which saw the rapid establishment of deaf schools, usually manned by deaf teachers, throughout the civilized world, the emergence of the deaf from neglect and obscurity, their emancipation and disenfranchisement, and their rapid appearance in positions of eminence and responsibility—deaf writers, deaf engineers, deaf philosophers, deaf intellectuals, previously inconceivable, suddenly appeared.


Roughly the first third of When the Mind Hears carries on the theme of The Deaf Experience, documents, through Clerc’s pseudo-autobiography, the bringing of the word, or rather the Sign, to America, and its rapid and remarkable rise and spread there. It tells how Clerc was persuaded to come to the United States in 1816, where he had an immediate and extraordinary impact, for American teachers up to this point had never been exposed to, never even imagined, a deaf-mute of impressive intelligence and eloquence, had never imagined the possibilities dormant in the deaf, and where with Thomas Gallaudet, he set up the American Asylum, in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. As Paris—teachers, philosophes, and public-at-large—was moved, amazed, “converted” by de l’Epée in the 1770s, so America was to be converted fifty years later.

The atmosphere at the Hartford asylum, and at others soon to be set up, was marked by the sort of enthusiasm and excitement only seen at the start of grand intellectual and humanitarian adventures.11 The prompt and spectacular success of the Hartford asylum soon led to the opening of other schools wherever there was sufficient density of population, and thus of the deaf. Virtually all the teachers of the deaf (nearly all of whom were themselves fluent signers and deaf) went to Hartford. This was to have a crucial part in forging a language (American Sign Language) of precision and power, a true national language transcending the multitudes of regional dialects previously employed. A special indigenous strength—not mentioned by Lane, but presented convincingly by Nora Groce—was the contribution of the Martha’s Vineyard deaf to the development of ASL. A substantial minority of the population there suffered from a hereditary deafness, and most of the island had adopted an easy and powerful sign language. Virtually all the deaf of the Vineyard were sent to the Hartford asylum in its formative years, where they contributed to the developing national language the unique strength of their own.

  1. 10

    Edward Klima and Ursula Bellugi, The Signs of Language (Harvard University Press, 1979).

  2. 11

    This atmosphere breathes from every page of a delightful book by a deaf-mute, The Deaf and the Dumb, by Edwin John Mann, Late Pupil of the Hartford asylum, published by Hitchcock in 1836.

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