We are remarkably ignorant about deafness, which Dr. Johnson called “the most desperate of human calamities”—much more ignorant than an educated man would have been in 1886, or 1786. Ignorant and indifferent. During the last few months I have raised the subject with countless people and nearly always met with responses like: “Deafness? Don’t know any deaf people. Never thought much about it. There’s nothing interesting about deafness, is there?” This would have been my own response a few months ago.

Things changed for me when I was sent a fat book by Harlan Lane called When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf, which I opened with indifference, soon to be changed to astonishment, and then to something approaching incredulity. I discussed the subject with my friend and colleague Dr. Isabelle Rapin, who has worked closely with the deaf for twenty-five years.1 I got to know better a congenitally deaf colleague, a remarkable and highly gifted woman, whom I had previously taken for granted. I started seeing, or exploring for the first time, a number of deaf patients under my care. My reading rapidly spread from Harlan Lane’s history to The Deaf Experience, a collection of memoirs by and about the first literate deaf, skillfully edited by Lane, and then to Nora Ellen Groce’s Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard, and to a great many other books. Now I have an entire bookshelf on a subject which I had not thought of even as existing six months ago, and have seen some of the remarkable films that have been produced on the subject, particularly in England.2

One more acknowledgement by way of preamble. In 1969 W.H. Auden gave me a copy, his own copy, of Deafness,3 a remarkable autobiographical memoir by the South African poet and novelist David Wright, who became deaf at the age of seven: “You’ll find it fascinating,” he said. “It’s a wonderful book.” It was dotted with his own annotations (though I do not know whether he ever reviewed it). I skimmed it, without paying more attention, in 1969. But now I was to rediscover it for myself. David Wright is a writer who writes from the depths of his own experience—and not as a historian or scholar writes about a subject. Moreover, he is not alien to us. We can easily imagine, more or less, what it would be like to be him (whereas we cannot without difficulty imagine what it would be like to be Laurent Clerc—or the Wild Boy of Aveyron). Thus he can serve as a bridge for us, conveying us through his own experiences into the realm of the unimaginable. Since he is easier to read than the great mutes of the eighteenth century, he should if possible be read first—for he prepares us for them. Toward the close of the book he writes:

Not much has been written about deafness by the deaf.4 Even so, considering that I did not become deaf till after I had learned the language, I am no better placed than a hearing person to imagine what it is like to be born into silence and reach the age of reason without acquiring a vehicle for thought and communication. Merely to try gives weight to the tremendous opening of St. John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word. How does one formulate concepts in such a condition?

It is this—the relation of language to thought—that forms the deepest, the ultimate, issue when we consider what faces or may face those who are born, or very early become, totally deaf.


The term “deaf” is vague, or rather, is so general that it impedes consideration of the vastly differing degrees of deafness, degrees that are of qualitative, and even of “existential,” significance. There are the “hard of hearing,” fifteen million or so in the US population, who can manage, with hearing aids and a certain amount of care and patience on the part of those who speak to them. Many of us have parents or grandparents in this category—a century ago they would have used ear trumpets.

There are also the “severely” deaf, many as result of ear disease or injury in early life; but with them, as with the hard of hearing, the hearing of speech is still possible, especially with the new, highly sophisticated, computerized, and “personalized” hearing aids now becoming available. Then there are the “profoundly” deaf (sometimes called “stone deaf”), who have no hope at all of hearing any speech, whatever imaginable technological advances are made. The profoundly deaf cannot converse in the usual way—they must either lip-read (as David Wright did), or use sign language, or both.

It is not merely the degree of deafness that matters, but—crucially—the age, or stage, at which it occurs. David Wright in the passage already quoted observes that he lost his hearing only after he had acquired language, and (this being the case) he cannot even imagine what it must be like for those who lack or have lost hearing before the acquisition of language. He brings this out in other passages:


My becoming deaf when I did—if deafness had to be my destiny—was remarkably lucky. By the age of seven a child will have grasped the essentials of language, as I had…. Having learned naturally how to speak was another advantage—pronunciation, syntax, inflexion, idiom, all had come by ear. I had the basis of a vocabulary which could easily be extended by reading. All of these would have been denied me had I been born deaf or lost my hearing earlier than I did. [Italics added]

Wright speaks of the “phantasmal voices” which he hears when anyone speaks to him provided he can see the movement of their lips and faces, and of how he would “hear” the soughing of the wind whenever he saw trees or branches being stirred by the wind. Though he knows these sounds to be “illusory”—“projections of habit and memory”—they remain intensely vivid for him throughout the decades of his deafness. For Wright, for those deafened after hearing is well established, the world remains full of sounds even though they are “phantasmal.”

It is another matter entirely, and one which is essentially unimaginable by the normal (and even by the “postlingually” deafened, like David Wright), if hearing is absent at birth, or lost in infancy before the language is acquired. Those so afflicted—the “prelingually” deaf—are in a category qualitatively different from all others. For these people, who have never heard, who have no possible auditory memories, images, or associations, there can never be even the illusion of sound. They live in a world of utter, unbroken soundlessness and silence. These, the congenitally deaf, number perhaps a quarter of a million in this country. They make up a thousandth of the world’s children.

It is with these and these only that we will be concerned here, as it is these and these only who are considered in Harlan Lane’s books and in Nora Groce’s book on the deaf on Martha’s Vineyard, for their situation and predicament are unique. Why should this be so? People tend, if they think of deafness at all, to think of it as less grave than blindness, to see it as a disadvantage, or a nuisance, or a handicap, but scarcely as devastating in a radical sense. (One wonders why Samuel Johnson’s perceptions were so much keener and deeper than our own—whether it was some personal knowledge of the deaf-and-dumb of London, or whether it was a reflection of the “new” sensibility, the revolution in understanding of the deaf, which was taking place in his lifetime.)

Whether deafness is “preferable” to blindness, if acquired in later life, is arguable; but to be born deaf is infinitely more serious than to be born blind—at least potentially so.5 For the prelingually deaf, unable to hear their parents, risk being severely retarded, if not permanently defective, in their grasp of language, unless early and effective measures are taken. And to be defective in language, for a human being, is one of the most desperate of calamities, for it is only through language that we enter fully into our human estate and culture, communicate freely with our fellows, acquire and share information. If we cannot do this, we will be bizarrely disabled and cut off—whatever our desires, or endeavors, or native capacities. And indeed, we may be so little able to realize our intellectual capacities as to appear mentally defective.

It was for this reason that the congenitally deaf, or “deaf-and-dumb,” were considered “dumb” (stupid) for thousands of years and were regarded by an unenlightened law as “incompetent”—to inherit property, to marry, to receive education, to have adequately challenging work—and were denied fundamental human rights. This situation was not remedied until the middle of the eighteenth century, when (perhaps as part of a more general enlightenment, perhaps as a specific act of empathy and genius) the perception and situation of the deaf were altered at a stroke.

Harlan Lane, already famous for his remarkable study, The Wild Boy of Aveyron,6 is clearly fascinated, as were the philosophes of the time, by the extraordinary issues and problems posed by a seemingly languageless human being—and, indeed, the Wild Boy, when brought to Paris in 1800, was admitted to the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes, which was at the time supervised by the Abbé Sicard, a founding member of the Society for Observers of Man, and a notable authority on the education of the deaf. As Jonathan Miller writes:


As far as the members of this society were concerned the “savage” child represented an ideal case with which to investigate the foundations of human nature…. By studying a creature of this sort, just as they had previously studied savages and primates, Red Indians and orangutans, the intellectuals of the late eighteenth century hoped to decide what was characteristic of Man. Perhaps it would now be possible to weigh the native endowment of the human species and to settle once and for all the part that was played by society in the development of language, intelligence, and morality.

Here, of course, the two enterprises diverged, one ending in triumph, the other in complete failure. The Wild Boy never acquired language, for whatever reason or reasons. One insufficiently considered possibility is that he was, strangely, never exposed to sign language, but continually (and vainly) forced to try to speak.7 But when the “deaf and dumb” were properly approached, i.e., through sign language, they proved almost infinitely educable, and they rapidly showed an astonished world how fully they could enter into its culture and life. This wonderful circumstance—how a despised or neglected minority, practically denied human status up to this point, emerged suddenly and startlingly upon the world stage (and the later tragic undermining of all this in the following century) forms the extraordinary story that Harlan Lane tells in his two books.


But let us for the last time, before launching on this strange history, go back to the wholly personal, and “innocent,” observations of David Wright (“innocent” because, as he himself stresses, he made a point of avoiding any reading on the subject until he had written his own book). At the age of eight, when it became clear that his deafness was incurable, and that without special measures his speech would regress, he was sent to a special school in England, one of the ruthlessly dedicated, but misconceived, rigorously “oral” schools, which are concerned above all to make the deaf speak like other children, and which have done so much harm to the prelingually deaf since their inception. The young David Wright was flabbergasted at his first encounter with the prelingually deaf:

Sometimes I took lessons with Vanessa. She was the first deaf child I had met…. But even to an eight-year-old like myself her general knowledge seemed strangely limited. I remember a geography lesson we were doing together, when Miss Neville asked,

“Who is the king of England?”

Vanessa didn’t know; troubled, she tried to read sideways the geography book, which lay open at the chapter about Great Britain that we had prepared.

“King—king,” began Vanessa.

“Go on,” commanded Miss Neville.

“I know,” I said.

“Be quiet.”

“United Kingdom,” said Vanessa. I laughed.

“You are very silly,” said Miss Neville. “How can a king be called ‘United Kingdom’?”

“King United Kingdom,” tried poor Vanessa, scarlet.

“Tell her if you know, John.”

“King George the Fifth,” I said proudly.

“It’s not fair! It wasn’t in the book!”

Vanessa was quite right of course; the chapter on the geography of Great Britain did not concern itself with its political set-up. She was far from stupid; but having been born deaf her slowly and painfully acquired vocabulary was still too small to allow her to read for amusement or pleasure. As a consequence there were almost no means by which she could pick up the fund of miscellaneous and temporarily useless information other children unconsciously acquire from conversation or random reading. Almost everything she knew she had been taught or made to learn. And this is a fundamental difference between hearing and deaf-born children—or was, in that pre-electronic era.8

Vanessa’s situation, one sees, was a serious one, despite her native ability—and it was helped only with much difficulty, if not actually perpetuated, by the sort of teaching and communication forced upon her. For in this progressive school, as it was regarded, there was an almost insanely fierce, righteous prohibition of sign language—not only no use of the long-established and powerful National Sign Language, but of the “sign-argot”—the rough sign language developed on their own by the deaf children in the school. And yet—this is also well described by Wright—signing flourished at the school, was irrepressible despite punishment and prohibition. This was young David Wright’s first vision of the boys:

Confusion stuns the eye, arms whirl like windmills in a hurricane…the emphatic silent vocabulary of the body—look, expression, bearing, glance of eye; hands perform their pantomine. Absolutely engrossing pandemonium…. I begin to sort out what’s going on. The seemingly corybantic brandishing of hands and arms reduces itself to a convention, a code which as yet conveys nothing. It is in fact a kind of vernacular. The school has evolved its own peculiar language or argot, though not a verbal one…. All communications were supposed to be oral. Our own sign-argot was of course prohibited…. But these rules could not be enforced without the presence of the staff. What I have been describing is not how we talked, but how we talked among ourselves when no hearing person was present. At such times our behaviour and conversation were quite different. We relaxed inhibitions, wore no masks.

Such was the Northampton School in the English midlands, when David Wright went there as a pupil in 1927. For him, as a postlingually deaf child, with a firm grasp of language, the school was, manifestly, excellent. For Vanessa, for the prelingually deaf, such a school, with its ruthlessly oral approach, was not short of a disaster. But a century earlier, say, in the American Asylum, opened a decade before in Hartford, Connecticut, where there was free use of sign language between all pupils and teachers, Vanessa would not have found herself pitifully handicapped, but might have become a literate, perhaps even literary, young woman of the sort who emerged and wrote books during the 1830s.

There we have it. Vanessa hadn’t a chance at a special school, an oral school, in the 1920s, whereas she would have had an excellent chance of becoming an accomplished young woman, and indeed writer, a century earlier, in one of the many signing deaf schools then flourishing, like the American Asylum. This is the paradox, the anachronism that Harlan Lane addresses, and that we must now examine in greater detail.


Lane tells his story in two ways, in two quite different but complementary books. The Deaf Experience presents primary documents, written both by the first literate deaf-mutes in the world—de Fontenay, Desloges, Jean Massieu, Berthier, and their great teachers, the Abbé de l’Epée, the Abbé Sicard, and Roche-Ambroise Bébian. The documents powerfully, and poignantly, speak for themselves. The period they cover is confined to the golden years between 1764 and the 1860s, when the deaf were first educated and liberated, and stepped into the world.

In When the Mind Hears Lane becomes a novelist-biographer-historian, and assumes the persona of Laurent Clerc, the illustrious pupil of Sicard and Massieu, friend of Bébian, teacher of Berthier, who came to the US, at the invitation of and with Thomas Gallaudet, to found the first American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. Since Clerc’s rich and long life (1785–1869) spanned the most crucial developments, in many of which, indeed, he had played a leading part, he becomes an ideal figure from whom to hang a history of the deaf: “I have dared to speak in Clerc’s name,” Lane writes, “in order to present the views of the deaf themselves as clearly and cogently as possible.” It could be objected that this pseudo-autobiography (for Clerc himself left only brief autobiographical sketches, though he was a voluminous and vivid writer of letters and memoirs) is an artifact, that Clerc is being used ventriloqually, as a screen for the projection of Lane’s own views. No doubt this is occasionally the case. But, on the whole, one has the feeling of a truthful, or at least plausible, account made possible by Lane’s immense scholarship, powers of historical reconstruction, and deep empathy for the world of Clerc, and of the deaf-mute.

With Clerc’s death in 1869, Lane continues the narrative in his own voice up to the present day. This later part of the book makes painful reading at times—but it treats of painful matters, ugly controversies with sometimes ugly effects, disastrous effects, very different from the halcyon days described in The Deaf Experience. There are a number of things that make one uncomfortable, to put it mildly, in When the Mind Hears. Lane is openly partisan in his attitudes and often strongly polemical in tone. Sometimes he seems more concerned with advocating than presenting points of view, above all the case for teaching the deaf through signing and not through efforts to make them speak.

The Deaf Experience, in contrast, is unexceptionable, a major and delightful source book from the great figures of the past. Lane spent many years in France, and has an intimate and sympathetic acquaintance with all the original sources, and with the intellectual history of this crucial period in France, a time of intellectual no less than political revolution. All that makes The Wild Boy of Aveyron a splendid book is equally in evidence here, and makes this splendid too.

The situation of the prelingually deaf, then, prior to 1750, was indeed a calamity. Unable to acquire speech,9 hence “dumb” or “mute”; unable to enjoy free communication with even their parents and families; confined to a few rudimentary signs and gestures; cut off, except in large cities, even from the community of their own kind; deprived of literacy and education, all knowledge of the world; forced to do the most menial work; living alone, often close to destitution; treated by the law and society as little better than imbeciles—the lot of the deaf was manifestly dreadful.

But what was manifest was as nothing to the destitution inside—the destitution of knowledge and thought that prelingual deafness can bring, in the absence of any communication or remedial measures. The deplorable state of the deaf aroused both the curiosity and the compassion of the philosophes. Thus the Abbé Sicard asked:

Why is the uneducated deaf person isolated in nature and unable to communicate with other men? Why is he reduced to this state of imbecility? Does his biological constitution differ from ours? Does he not have everything he needs for having sensations, acquiring ideas, and combining them to do everything that we do? Does he not get sensory impressions from objects as we do? Are these not, as with us, the occasion of the mind’s sensations and its acquired ideas? Why then does the deaf person remain stupid while we become intelligent?

To ask this question—never really or clearly asked before—is to grasp its answer, to see that the answer lies in the use of symbols. It is, Sicard continues, because the deaf person has “no symbols for fixing and combining ideas…that there is a total communication-gap between him and other people.” But what was all important, and had been a source of fundamental confusion since Aristotle’s pronouncements on the matter, was the enduring misconception that symbols had to be speech. Perhaps indeed this passionate misconception, or prejudice, went back to biblical days: the subhuman status of mutes was part of the Mosaic code, and it was reinforced by the biblical exaltation of the voice and ear as the one and true way in which man and God could speak. And yet, overborne by Mosaic and Aristotelian thunderings, some profound voices intimated that this need not be so. Thus Socrates’ remark in the Cratylus of Plato, which so impressed the youthful Abbé de l’Epée:

If we had neither voice nor tongue, and yet wished to manifest things to one another, should we not, like those which are at present mute, endeavour to signify our meaning by the hands, head, and other parts of the body?

Or the deep, yet obvious, insights of the physician-philosopher Cardan in the sixteenth century:

It is possible to place a deaf-mute in a position to hear by reading, and to speak by writing…for as different sounds are conventionally used to signify different things, so also may the various figures of objects and words…. Written characters and ideas may be connected without the intervention of actual sounds.

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.

One has, indeed, a strong sense of pollination, of people coming to and fro, bringing regional languages, with all their idiosyncracies and strengths, to Hartford, and bringing back an increasingly polished and generalized language. The rise of deaf literacy and deaf education was as spectacular in the US as it had been in France, and it soon spread to other parts of the world.

Lane estimates that by 1869 there were 550 teachers of the deaf worldwide and that 41 percent of the teachers of the deaf in the United States were themselves deaf. In 1864 Congress passed a law authorizing the Columbian Institution in Washington to become a national deaf-mute college, the first institution of higher learning specifically for the deaf. Its first principal was Edward Gallaudet—the son of Thomas Gallaudet, who had brought Clerc to the United States in 1816. Gallaudet College, as it was later rechristened, was for years the only deaf college in the United States and even now there is only one other.

The great impetus of deaf education and liberation, which had swept France between 1770 and 1820, thus continued its triumphant course in the United States until 1870 (Clerc, immensely active to the end and personally charismatic, died in 1869). And then—and this is the turning point in the entire story—the tide turned, turned against the use of sign language by and for the deaf, so that within twenty years the work of a century was undone.

Lane is impassioned, polemical, at times even virulent, about this tragic regression, as he sees it, and the forces and agents responsible for it—impassioned, but not entirely clear. The central obscurity and mystery in the whole matter—why did people suddenly turn against a powerful and proven instrument?—he suggests but does not resolve in his history.

Indeed, what was happening with the deaf and sign language was part of a general (and, if one wishes, “political”) movement of the time: a trend to Victorian oppressiveness and conformism, intolerance of minorities, and minority usages, of every kind—religious, linguistic, ethnic. Thus it was at this time that the “little nations” and “little languages” of the world (for example, Wales and Welsh) found themselves under pressure to assimilate or conform.

Specifically, there had been for two centuries a countercurrent of feeling, from teachers and parents of the deaf, that the goal of deaf education should be teaching the deaf how to speak. Already, a century earlier, de l’Epée had found himself in implicit if not explicit opposition to Pereire, the greatest “oralist” or “demutizer” of his time, who dedicated his life to teaching the deaf how to speak (a task, indeed, for which dedication was needed, for it required years of the most intensive and arduous training, with one teacher working with one pupil, to have any hope of success, whereas de l’Epée could educate pupils by the hundred). Now, in the 1870s, a current that had been growing for decades, fed, paradoxically, by the immense success of the deaf-mute asylums, and their spectacular demonstration of the educability of the deaf, erupted, and attempted to eliminate the very instrument of success.

There were, indeed, real dilemmas, as there had always been, and they exist to this day. What good, it was asked, was the use of signs without speech? Would this not restrict the deaf, in daily life, to intercourse with other deaf? Should not speech (and lip reading) be taught instead, allowing a full integration of the deaf into the general population? Should not signs be proscribed, lest they interfere with speech?

But, on the other side, if the teaching of speech was arduous, occupied dozens of hours a week, might not its advantages be offset by these thousands of hours taken away from general education? Might one not end up with a functional illiterate, who had, at best, a poor imitation of speech? What was “better,” integration or education? Might one have both, by combining both speech and sign? Or would any such attempted combination bring about, not the best, but the worst, of both worlds?

These dilemmas, these debates, of the 1870s seem to have been gathering force beneath the surface throughout a century of achievement—an achievement that could be seen, and was seen, by many, as perverse, as conductive to isolation and a set-apart people.

Edward Gallaudet himself was an open-minded man who traveled extensively in Europe in the late 1860s, touring deaf schools in fourteen countries. He found that the majority used both sign language and speech, that the sign language schools did as well as the oral schools as far as articulating speech was concerned, but obtained superior results in general education. He felt that articulation skills, though highly desirable, could not be the basis of primary instruction—that this had to be achieved, and achieved early, by Sign.

Gallaudet was balanced, but others were not. There had been a rash of “reformers”—Samuel Gridley Howe and Horace Mann were egregious examples—who clamored for an overthrow of the “old-fashioned” sign-language asylums, and for the introduction of “progressive” oralist schools. The Clarke School for the Deaf, in Northampton, Massachusetts, was the first of these, opened in 1867. (It was the model and inspiration of the Northampton School in England, founded by the Reverend Thomas Arnold the following year.) But the most important and powerful of these “oralist” figures was Alexander Graham Bell, who was at once heir to a family tradition of teaching elocution and correcting speech impediments (his father and grandfather were both eminent in this); tied into a strange family mix of deafness denied—both his mother and his wife were deaf, but never acknowledged this; and, of course, a technological genius in his own right. When Bell threw all the weight of his immense authority and prestige into the advocacy of oralism, the scales were, finally, overbalanced and tipped, and at the notorious International Congress of Educators of the Deaf held at Milan in 1880, (though deaf teachers were themselves excluded from the vote), oralism won the day, and the use of Sign in schools was “officially” proscribed. The deaf were prohibited from using their own, “natural” language, and thenceforth forced to learn, as best they might, the (for them) “unnatural” language of speech.12 And perhaps this was in keeping with the spirit of the age, its overweening sense of science as power, of commanding nature and never deferring to it.

None of this would matter if oralism worked. But the effect, unhappily, was the reverse of what was desired—or, rather, exacted a perhaps intolerable price for the acquisition of speech. The deaf of the 1850s who had been to the Hartford asylum, or other such schools, were highly literate and educated—fully the equal of their hearing counterparts. Now the reverse is true.

It is Lane’s persuasive and frightening thesis that this reversal was caused by the sacrifice of sign language. He shows us—especially through his translations of Desloges, Massieu, Berthier, and others—that sign language is as easy (as “natural”) to acquire for the deaf as speech for the hearing, and that signing is by far the best (and often the only) foundation for teaching children a second language (English, French, or whatever). He indicates that oralism has resulted in a dramatic deterioration in the educational achievement of deaf children and in the literacy of the deaf generally. (Many of the deaf now are functional illiterates. A study carried out by Gallaudet College in 1972 showed that the average reading level of eighteen-year-old deaf highschool graduates in the United States was only at fourth-grade level, and a study by R. Conrad, in England, indicates a similar situation there, with deaf students, at graduation, reading at the level of nine-year-olds.)

These dismal facts are known to all teachers of the deaf, however they are to be interpreted. Hans Furth, a psychologist whose work is concerned with cognition of the deaf, states that the deaf do as well as the hearing on tasks that measure intelligence without the need for acquired information. He argues that the reason the congenitally deaf are inferior to the hearing is that they suffer from “information deprivation”—and that there are a number of reasons for this. First, that they are less exposed to the incidental learning that takes place out of school—for example, to television, unless it is captioned. Second, that the content of deaf education is meager compared to that of hearing children: so much time is spent teaching them speech—one must envisage between five and eight years of intensive tutoring—that there is little time for transmitting information, culture, complex skills, or anything else.

Yet the desire to have the deaf speak; the insistence that they speak—and from the first; the odd superstitions that have always clustered around the use of sign language; to say nothing of the enormous “investment” in oral schools, allowed this deplorable situation to develop, practically unnoticed except by the deaf, who themselves being unnoticed had little say in the matter. And it was only during the 1960s that historians like Lane and psychologists like Furth, as well as parents and teachers of the deaf, started asking, “What has happened? What is happening?” It was only in the 1960s and early 1970s that this situation reached the public, in the form of novels such as Joanne Greenberg’s In this Sign (1970) and more recently the powerful play Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff.

There is the perception that something must be done: but what? Typically, there is the seduction of compromise—that a “combined” system, combining signing and speech, will allow the deaf to become adept at both. A further compromise, containing a deep confusion, is suggested: having a language intermediate between English and Sign (i.e., a signed English). This category of confusion goes back a long way—back to de l’Epée’s “Methodical Signs,” which were an attempt to “translate” French into Sign. But sign languages, as definitively shown by Klima and Bellugi, are in fact complete in themselves, complete in a “Chomskian” way. Their syntax and grammar are complete, but have a different character from that of any spoken language. Thus it is not possible to transliterate a spoken tongue into Sign word by word or phrase by phrase—their structures are essentially different. It is often imagined, vaguely, that sign language is English or French: it is nothing of the sort; it is itself, Sign. Thus the “Signed Exact English” now favored as a compromise is an absurdity. Deaf students are required to learn the signs not for the ideas and actions they want to express but for phonetic English sounds they cannot hear. If Sign is to be reinstated, it must be a “pure,” a “natural” sign language, whatever is indigenous in that part of the world.

But what, more importantly, of the “combined” system by which students not only learn natural sign language but learn to lip read and speak as well? Perhaps this is workable, if education takes account of which capacities are best developed at different phases of growth. The essential point is this: that the deaf, the profoundly deaf, show no native disposition whatever to speak. Speaking is an ability that must be taught them, and is a labor of years. On the other hand, they show an immediate and powerful disposition to sign. This is most apparent in the deaf children of deaf parents using sign language, who make their first signs when they are about six months old and have considerable sign-fluency by the age of fifteen months. This is intriguingly earlier than the “normal” acquisition of speech, suggesting that our linguistic development is, so to speak, retarded by speech, by the complexity of neuro-muscular control required. If we are to communicate with babies, we may find that the way to do so is by Sign.


Language must be introduced and acquired as early as possible or its development may be permanently retarded and impaired, with all the problems in “propositioning” which Hughlings-Jackson discussed. This can be done, with the profoundly deaf, only by Sign. Therefore deafness must be diagnosed as early as possible. This is now easily done in the first months of life with electrophysiologic tests, provided the parents’ suspicion is taken seriously by doctors. Deaf children must be exposed to fluent signers, whether these be their parents, or teachers, or whoever. Once signing is learned—and it may be fluent by three years of age—then all else may follow: a free intercourse of minds, a free flow of information, the acquisition of reading and writing, and perhaps that of speech. There is no evidence that signing inhibits the acquisition of speech. Indeed the reverse is probably so.

Great technical advances have been made facilitating the acquisition of speech by the deaf, and a very reasonable and intelligible (if somewhat monotonous) speech will usually become possible. (But not always. There are some deaf who, despite high intelligence, and motivation, and the most arduous application, never achieve reasonable speech.) If one thing is clear—and it may be the only thing that is clear here—it is that “pure oralism,” or the exclusive “forcing” of speech, while ignoring or prohibiting sign language, will be severely disabling for most deaf people. The only certain way of ensuring the early and competent acquisition of language is to introduce it by sign in the first years of life.

A tragic division into “deaf” and “hearing” worlds has taken place. One of the reasons why most of us do not encounter the deaf—despite their considerable numbers in the world—is that they are frequently sequestered away in deaf families and communities, with insufficient speech or lip reading to enter the hearing world (let alone “make it” in the greater world). There may be a high degree of culture, and strong affectional bonds, in the deaf world—the deaf still tend to marry the deaf—but it may be an inbred one, set apart from the wide world. But, paradoxically, this enclosure, which is due to defective lip reading and speech, is aggravated by oralism, by the misguided enterprise of “forcing” speech when there is no real foundation of language to hold it.

Very slowly, now, we are reversing the militant oralism of the past century, undoing the mishap (or should one say calamity) of the Milan conference of 1880. But we must understand history, so that we do not fall victim to it, and this is where Harlan Lane’s books are of sovereign importance—for they can teach us, if we let them, the lessons of history.

Have the deaf always and everywhere been seen as “handicapped” or “inferior”? Have they always suffered, must they always suffer, segregation and isolation? Can one imagine their situation otherwise? If only there were a world where being deaf did not matter, and in which all the deaf could enjoy complete fulfillment and integration! A world in which they would not even be perceived as “handicapped” or “deaf.”


Such worlds do exist, or have existed in the past, and such a world is portrayed in Nora Ellen Groce’s beautiful and fascinating Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. Through a mutation, a recessive gene, brought out by inbreeding, a form of hereditary deafness existed for 250 years on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts—in some villages there was scarcely a family unaffected. In response to this, the entire community learned Sign, and there was free and complete intercourse between the hearing and the deaf. Indeed the deaf were scarcely seen as “deaf,” and certainly not seen as being at all “handicapped.”

In the astonishing interviews recorded by Groce, the island’s older residents would talk at length, vividly and affectionately, about their former relatives, neighbors, and friends, usually without even mentioning that they were deaf. And it would only be if this question was specifically asked that there would be a pause and then, “Now you come to mention it, yes, Ebenezer was deaf-and-dumb.” But Ebenezer’s deaf-and-dumbness had never set him apart, had scarcely even been noticed as such: he had been seen, he was remembered, simply as “Ebenezer”—friend, neighbor, dory fisherman—not as some special, handicapped, set-apart, deaf-mute. The deaf on Martha’s Vineyard loved, married, earned their livings, worked, thought, wrote, as everyone else did—they were not set apart in any way, unless it was that they were, on the whole, better educated than their neighbors, and often looked at as the most sagacious in the community.

Intriguingly, even after the last deaf-mute had died in 1952, the hearing tended to preserve Sign among themselves, not merely for special occasions (telling dirty jokes, talking in church, communicating between boats, etc.), but generally. They would slip into it, involuntarily, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, because Sign is “natural” to all who learn it (as a primary language), and has an intrinsic beauty and excellence sometimes superior to speech.

I was so moved by Groce’s book that the moment I finished it I jumped in the car, with only a toothbrush, a tape recorder, and a camera—I had to see this enchanted island for myself. I saw how some of the oldest inhabitants still preserved Sign, delighted in it, among themselves. And, speaking to one of the very oldest there, I found one other thing, of very great interest. This old lady, in her nineties, but sharp as a pin, would sometimes fall into a peaceful reverie. As she did so, she might have seemed to be knitting, her hands in constant complex motion. But her daughter, also a signer, told me she was not knitting but thinking to herself, thinking in sign. And even in sleep, I was further informed, the old lady might sketch fragmentary signs on the counterpane—she was dreaming in sign. Such phenomena cannot be accounted as merely social. It is evident that if a person has learned Sign as a primary language, his brain/mind will retain this, and use it, for the rest of that person’s life, even though hearing and speech be freely available and unimpaired. Sign, I was now convinced, was a fundamental language of the brain. Groce writes at the end of her book:

The stories which these elderly Islanders shared with me, of the deaf heritage of the Vineyard, merit careful consideration. The most striking fact about these deaf men and women is that they were not handicapped, because no one perceived their deafness as a handicap. As one woman said to me, “You know, we didn’t think anything special about them. They were just like anyone else. When you think about it, the Island was an awfully nice place to live.” Indeed it was.

This Issue

March 27, 1986