Last week’s post, Reasons for Optimism, highlighted the work of famed primatologist Frans de Waal and our ever-growing, albeit gradual, acknowledgement of the deep similarities between humans and other animals across a wide range of domains, from the intellectual to the ethical.
Language, however, seems to be different. While it’s clear that other animals have developed numerous ways to effectively communicate with each other, it’s equally clear that the gulf between animal and human communication is overwhelmingly vast. In other words, however much we narrow the gap between humans and our fellow creatures, to speak of a chimpanzee or dolphin Shakespeare seems to stretch credulity to the point of absurdity. Little wonder, then, that throughout the ages many have regarded language as the single most defining characteristic of being human.
But what, you might ask, is language anyway? This might seem an obvious question, but a few moments of reflection demonstrate that it’s hardly so simple. While most languages exist in written form, not all do (or did). And while language obviously allows us to communicate basic information to each other (The food is over there), by limiting any definition to such a rudimentary level we are running a serious risk of blurring the very distinction that gives language its unique evocative power.
Well, you might say, perhaps we should focus on the speech act itself. After all, in any given human language the sheer diversity of sounds we make clearly dwarfs that of any other species involved in the act of communication, let alone the enormous variations that exist from language to language.
But what about sign languages, where no speech is involved at all?
Faced with such an obvious counterexample, you might think that a return to the definitional drawing board would be promptly required, but academics tend to be a rather stubborn lot. All this shows, some adamantly maintained, is that sign languages clearly aren’t real languages at all: they are, in fact, merely a collection of glorified gestures.
It was left to pioneering Gallaudet University linguist Bill Stokoe to conclusively demonstrate, in the 1960s, that this judgement was just plain wrong. Stokoe began with the notion that language has certain structure and properties, before painstakingly demonstrating, through the development of his ASL Dictionary, that what he dubbed “American Sign Language” rigorously met the high language bar.
Carol Padden, Sanford I. Berman Chair in Language and Human Communication and current Dean of Social Sciences at UC San Diego, knows this story all too well. She worked with Stokoe in the 1970s as an undergraduate at nearby Georgetown University, and recalls that the groundbreaking work he singlehandedly pursued was hardly universally recognized at the time.
“I was there almost at the beginning, in 1974. It was only about 9 years after Bill had published his dictionary of American Sign Language, but people thought he was crazy. They thought it was a vanity project, and wondered why someone would make a dictionary that had no pictures of signs in it. He had developed a code for the hand shape and the movement because he wanted a phonological, phonetic analysis of how the movements came to mean things.
“But deaf and hearing people alike thought it was a fool’s project, that he was just doing this because he was a little bit crazy. In reality, he was just his own person: he was an independent thinker.”
These days, the world has firmly caught up with Bill Stokoe, so that when Carol (herself hearing impaired) describes her internal process of switching languages from English to ASL, nobody bats an eye:
But understanding the true nature of sign languages is hardly just a battle for linguistic recognition. Sign languages naturally provide a uniquely compelling window to help us understand a number of intriguing linguistical features, such as the phenomenon of “embodiment”:
“Embodiment is our way of talking and behaving that comes from how we interact with the world around us. For example, if you think about something like, “the foot of the mountains” or “the head of the class,” it becomes clear that there are a lot of ways that we use the body, or parts of the body, to set the analog to something in the world.
“In sign language, that’s even more natural to do because you can show it with the sign. It seems pretty clear. For example, if I’m signing something like “drink” or “eat,” it would naturally involve the mouth, rather than my arm, say. In sign language, then, you have new ways to think about embodiment.
Ironically, perhaps, Carol’s present research work often touches on the specific role of gesture in the evolution of languages. Long removed from the days when signing was regarded as glorified gesture, linguists like Carol are now examining gesture from a decidedly different angle.
“When I started, we wanted to keep a distance from gesture, because people would say, ‘Oh, that’s universal. It’s the same thing.’ And we would say, ‘No, it’s not. It’s different.’
“One gesture, like thumbs up, can mean a multitude of different things, including: ‘Good job,’ ‘It’s working,’ ‘See you later,’ ‘Everything’s good,’ ‘I’m fine,’ ‘You can leave,’ and so forth. But in sign language, you would have a different sign for each of those expressions. You have a lot more specificity. You have words that you combine and recombine. So we needed that distance from gesture, because a lot of that work was really looking at co-speech gesture, which is very much linked to what you’re speaking. There are lots of ways that gesture seems so different from sign language, and we wanted to emphasize that difference.
“Thirty years later, I think we’ve made our point. Now, what I’m doing, together with some of my colleagues, is going back to gesture and thinking about how languages come into being.
“This is the work my research group has been focused on for the last 12 years. We began working in a Bedouin village in southern Israel. This is a situation that nobody had recognized until recently, but we now realize happens regularly all over the world: you have a community that’s closed for some reason – maybe it’s geographically distant, maybe it’s ethnicity, maybe it’s an island – but for some reason they’re kept separate from schools, from national sign languages. If you have a mix of deaf and hearing people, they will spontaneously begin to create a new sign language from gesture.
“In the first generation, it really starts to take on properties that are distinctly different from co-speech gesture. It’s different from pantomime. It’s a little bit more than pantomime. Then you have a second generation, in which the language really starts to take shape, and by the third generation, it really starts to look like a lot of other sign languages in the world. So in a span of about 75 to 80 years, you can build a new sign language out of gesture, and it has all the indications that we recognize to be true of sign languages that are much older.”
OK, you might think, I get that signing is not the same as gesturing, and that sign languages, as revealed through their structure and properties, must be regarded as genuine languages. And by focusing on the role of gesture in integrated communities of deaf and hearing people, we now have a clever way of monitoring the evolution of sign languages in certain instances. That’s interesting, but does it tell us anything deep about language in general? Does gesture, for instance, represent something more fundamental than simply a tool to look at how some particular sign languages evolve? The answer, in a word, seems to be “yes”:
“We’re beginning to realize that signers also gesture. I talked previously about co- speech gesture, but we also have co-sign gesture. A lot of people think, ‘Well, if you have sign language, what do you need gesture for?’ They think that gesture simply withered up, died, and was replaced by sign language. But we’re finding that’s not correct: signers gesture as well.
“The modality is different between speech and sign language, but it’s about conveying categorical information. Gesture is about conveying something that’s more continuous, more analogic, and language is purposefully not analogic. It’s more categorical. “That’s why we think of language use as multi-modal. Languages have rich resources, but you end up using just a subset of those. Some languages have clicks, some have whistles, some use a lot more gesture, like in the Mediterranean Area, for example, as well as in Arabic countries. In southern Europe they use a lot more gesture than in northern Europe.
“Much of that is shaped by culture and community. Many of these things people once thought were universal, but now we’re beginning to really understand how to describe diversity.”
Language, it seems, could well turn out to be exclusively human. But within that rather broad category, basic differences could well prove to be entirely contingent. And measurable.
Our public landing page is dedicated this week to Carol Padden and features two free videos called Embodiment and YouTube ASL.
For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos with Carol Padden, click here. The eBook called Sign Language Linguistics contains the unabridged Ideas Roadshow conversation with Carol Padden and a range of additional resources and is available on Amazon, while the podcast of our one-hour video is now freely available on iTunes.
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