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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 and their economic situation was often desperate. Except in places where there were enough deaf people to make up a community, they lived in isolation, deprived of any means of communicating with their fellows. Their fate attracted the attention of the philosophes, who asked what kept the deaf in this deplorable state. Sacks writes that “to ask this question—never really or clearly asked before—is to grasp its answer.” Without language, intellectual or social development is impossible. But how could the deaf acquire language? Attempts to teach the deaf to speak had proved extremely difficult, succeeding only with those who had some experience of speech—whether through residual hearing or by having learned to speak before becoming deaf. For those born entirely or almost entirely deaf, learning to speak was extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Like many problems that resist solution, this one was rooted in a basic unconscious assumption: the equating of language with speech. It took the Abbé de l’Epée, a French cleric who wanted to bring the deaf the word of God, to discover that there were deaf people in Paris who already had a language—not oral but signed. L’Epée learned their language and approached them through it, developing a method of teaching them to read and write French. For the first time deaf people were able to acquire an education. L’Epée’s school, founded in 1755, trained teachers who by his death in 1789 had established twenty-one schools for the deaf in France and Europe. Sacks describes the results:

This period—which now seems a sort of golden period in deaf history—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 enfranchisement, and their rapid appearance in positions of eminence and responsibility—deaf writers, deaf engineers, deaf philosophers, deaf intellectuals, previously inconceivable, were suddenly possible.

The first liberation of the deaf occurred in the late eighteenth century because, for the first time, the deaf had been approached through sign.

The school founded by the Abbé de l’Epée had much to do with the genesis of American Sign Language (ASL). Laurent Clerc, a Deaf graduate of the school, introduced French Sign Language as the language of instruction in the first American school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. ASL emerged from a blending of French Sign Language with the sign languages already in use in America, brought to the school by its pupils. The school became the center of a signing community and sent its graduates to teach in new schools for the deaf, spreading ASL throughout the United States and to most of Canada. Passed from generation to generation for almost two hundred years, ASL is now the language of a community of several hundred thousand.

ASL shares structural features with Irish Sign Language, Swedish Sign Language, Dutch Sign Language, Latvian Sign Language, Swiss Sign Language, Austrian Sign Language, Italian Sign Language, and Spanish Sign Language; these languages are said to be “related” because they all evolved from French Sign Language,1 which was introduced into schools for the deaf in all these countries by graduates of L’Epée’s school and merged with local sign languages already in use. There are also many differences arising from the differences among the local sign languages with which French Sign merged or from independent changes during the past two centuries. ASL and British Sign Language, having no common ancestor, are not related and are mutually unintelligible. Taiwan Sign Language is related to Japanese Sign Language and Korean Sign Language. These Asian sign languages are not related to the sign languages of Europe or their offshoots in America such as ASL.

Some forms of manual communication look like “signing” but are not ASL. One is “fingerspelling,” in which a hand configuration or “handshape” corresponds to each letter of the alphabet. Like the Morse code, this is only a way of representing words written in the Latin alphabet. There are also forms of “signed English” invented by educators to teach English to deaf children. Perhaps the most widely used is Signing Exact English (SEE), which borrows many signs from ASL. A SEE sentence is simply English transposed word for word into signs, following English syntax in every detail. Also transposed into sign are verbal suffixes such as -s, -ed, -en, ing, as well as prefixes and suffixes that form derived words in English, e.g. -al (refusal), -ment (amendment), -ship (scholarship), -ous (dangerous), mis- (misunderstand), and so on. SEE is thus a manual representation of English, not an independent language.

Many hearing people confuse these manual communication systems with ASL, now emerging from a long period as a stigmatized “underground language” used by the Deaf at home and in the Deaf community but not with the hearing. While ASL enjoyed relatively wide acceptance through most of the nineteenth century, by the end of the century there was a movement away from signing and in favor of speech training and lip-reading in deaf education. Many educators viewed signing as an imprecise, defective mode of communication. After the International Congress of Educators of the Deaf in Milan in 1880, sign was officially banned from schools for the deaf, first in Europe and then in the United States. The shift from sign to speech in American schools for the deaf brought a shift from Deaf to hearing teachers, many of whom did not know ASL. But ASL continued as a widely used underground language. Despite educational policies that forbade and sometimes punished its use, residential schools for the deaf were vital to the survival and spread of ASL. They created communities of deaf children which included fluent signers who had learned ASL from infancy in Deaf homes and spread ASL to the roughly 90 percent of deaf children with hearing parents.

Beginning in the early 1960s, and accelerating rapidly through the 1970s and 1980s as linguistic research on ASL began to reveal its status as an independent language and as a new generation of Deaf performers and poets began to find new ways to exploit the artistic and poetic potential of the language, the Deaf community began to experience a change in consciousness that made the language and its culture a source of pride.2 This new consciousness burst upon an unsuspecting world in March 1988 through events at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, the only liberal arts university for the deaf. Angered by the Board of Trustees’ appointment of a new president ignorant of their language and culture and by the chairman’s inflammatory statement that “the deaf are not yet ready to function in the hearing world,” Deaf students mounted a revolt against the pathological view of deafness.

Sacks visited the campus, talked with students, and gives a moving account of the strike, which took the hearing world by surprise. While educators and others had debated the pathological and linguistic-cultural views of deafness for two centuries, most hearing people were unaware that there was anything to debate. If they had thought about deafness at all, the pathological view seemed self-evident. They had never been introduced to the linguistic-cultural view, whose understanding requires a knowledge of the language and culture of Deaf communities which few possess.3

What separates the two views of deafness is the answer they give to a central question: Do the Deaf have a language of their own that is comparable to oral languages such as English, Japanese, Navajo, Yiddish, and others that are transmitted orally from one generation to the next?4 The different answers spring from fundamentally opposed views of language. The pathological view is based on the idea that only speech or its representation in writing is language. It assumes that a sign language is somehow deficient—not a true language but a substitute used by people whose deafness makes language inaccessible. Advocates of the linguistic-cultural view of deafness maintain that sign languages are as effective as oral languages, providing the deaf a means of communication, full membership in a community, and participation as equals in its life and culture.

  1. 1

    William C. Stokoe, “Classification and Description of Sign Languages,” in Thomas A. Sebeok, ed., Current Trends in Linguistics, Vol. 12 (Mouton, 1974).

  2. 2

    This process is beautifully described and analyzed in Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Deaf in America: Voices From a Culture (Harvard University Press, 1988), Chapter 5.

  3. 3

    On Deaf culture, the American Deaf community, and the experience of Deafness, see Padden and Humphries, Deaf in America.

  4. 4

    Writing is not a separate modality on a par with speaking and signing, but is derivative of oral language.

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