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Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind
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Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind

4.0 1
by Margalit Fox

Imagine a village where everyone "speaks" sign language. Just such a village — an isolated Bedouin community in Israel with an unusually high rate of deafness — is at the heart of Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind. There, an indigenous sign language has sprung up, used by deaf and hearing villagers alike. It is a language


Imagine a village where everyone "speaks" sign language. Just such a village — an isolated Bedouin community in Israel with an unusually high rate of deafness — is at the heart of Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind. There, an indigenous sign language has sprung up, used by deaf and hearing villagers alike. It is a language no outsider has been able to decode, until now.

A New York Times reporter trained as a linguist, Margalit Fox is the only Western journalist to have set foot in this remarkable village. In Talking Hands, she follows an international team of scientists that is unraveling this mysterious language.

Because the sign language of the village has arisen completely on its own, outside the influence of any other language, it is a living demonstration of the "language instinct," man's inborn capacity to create language. If the researchers can decode this language, they will have helped isolate ingredients essential to all human language, signed and spoken. But as Talking Hands grippingly shows, their work in the village is also a race against time, because the unique language of the village may already be endangered.

Talking Hands offers a fascinating introduction to the signed languages of the world — languages as beautiful, vital and emphatically human as any other — explaining why they are now furnishing cognitive scientists with long-sought keys to understanding how language works in the mind.

Written in lyrical, accessible prose, Talking Hands will captivate anyone interested in language, the human mind and journeys to exotic places.

Editorial Reviews

Leah Hager Cohen
Talking Hands offers a thorough examination of the history, politics and science of signed languages, emphasizing their special bearing on our understanding of humans' biological imperative to create language. In chapters that alternate with those set in the village, Fox provides an exhaustive, energetic and frequently elegant tour through the world of sign language and sign linguistics. I know of no other book in this field that covers so much ground so comprehensively and with such care.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The world of sign languages and cognitive research comes to life in this story of a remote Israeli village that's become a test bed for understanding how the human brain processes language. New York Timesreporter Fox follows researchers, led by University of Haifa professor Wendy Sandler, to the Bedouin village of Al-Sayyid, where isolation, genetics and inbreeding have led to a higher than usual percentage of deafness in the population. In response, the villagers have created a home-brew sign language used by both the hearing and deaf. By studying this unique language, Sandler and her cohort hope to gain deeper insight into how the brain acquires and uses language. Chapters alternate between the painstaking work in Al-Sayyid and a history of sign language itself. Both are gracefully reinforced with vivid examples, from the early insistence of "experts" that proper sign language must produce words in one-to-one correspondence with spoken language to a lively gathering in Al-Sayyid where conversation flows freely in six languages: English, Hebrew, Arabic, American Sign Language, Israeli Sign Language and the local sign language. Fox takes readers on a fascinating tour of deaf communication, clearly explaining difficult concepts, and effortlessly introducing readers to a silent world where communication is anything but slow and awkward. (Aug. 21)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A New York Times reporter considers the case (and the significance) of a unique sign language that has emerged among the many congenitally deaf denizens of an isolated Bedouin village in northern Israel. Fox struggled to convince an international team of linguists to allow her even limited access to their research site. (Accordingly, the author has altered many identifying details.) She agreed to numerous limitations on her reporting (she could not, for example, interact with the residents in anything but a casual, polite way), and she was on site for only a short time. But she interviewed the principal researchers on numerous occasions, visited them at conferences and spent years studying the acquisition and development of languages-signed and spoken. (Her long list of scholarly references and her many pages of endnotes testify silently to her assiduity.) The chapters alternate between leisurely, amiable narratives of her visits to the village (where the researchers present slide shows featuring objects and actions and ask the villagers to sign appropriately) and long discursive (and often dense) discussions of the relevant history and scholarship. This approach sometimes gives her text a schizophrenic character. Fox has an appealing voice, and she is best when discussing issues of the most immediate relevance to the village. She describes the people, samples the food, notes the architecture, the customs, the oddities (T-shirts bearing contemporary Western messages). In more academic-minded sections, she discusses the differences between spoken and spatial grammar, revealing a complexity in the latter that will surprise many readers, and summarizes the recent research exploring thediffering areas of the brain devoted to spoken and signed language. A smooth narrative sometimes slowed by academic writing. Agent: Katinka Matson/Brockman, Inc.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
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6.20(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Talking Hands

What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind
By Margalit Fox

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2007 Margalit Fox
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743247122


The narrative sections of this book document a journey to a remarkable place: an isolated Middle Eastern village whose inhabitants "speak" sign language -- a language unlike any other in the world, witnessed by few outsiders and never before described. For the last several years, a team of four linguists, two from the United States and two from Israel, has been working in the village, documenting this extraordinary language and, little by little, deciphering it. In the summer of 2003, I was granted the immense privilege of accompanying the team on a three-day research trip to the village. To my knowledge, I am the only journalist from outside the region who has ever been there.

From the time the linguists first set foot in the village, they have striven ferociously to protect the privacy of the people they are studying. That is their job. Before they could even begin their fieldwork, the team spent many painstaking months earning the trust of the villagers. When I first learned of the project, and broached the idea of this book, the linguists felt, with ample justification, that the presence of any newcomer, much less a journalist, had the potential to capsize their entire endeavor. Because of this, I acceded to more constraints on my reporting than I normally would. These were arrived at in the course of nearly a year oftransatlantic negotiations with the team's leader, Dr. Wendy Sandler of the University of Haifa, as I sought permission to make the trip.

During my time in the village I was, by prearrangement, a mostly silent observer of the linguists as they went about their work; at no time was I allowed to interview the villagers independently. (Given the breathtaking gulf between their native language and mine, this would have been no small trick anyhow.) Although the linguists continue to make regular research trips to the village, I was permitted to go along only this once. All of the scenes described in the narrative, and all of the dialogue, I saw and heard firsthand during the course of this visit. The only exception is the tale of the larcenous mice, which I have reconstructed based on an interview with the victim. My descriptions of the history and daily life of Al-Sayyid are based on my own observations, and on interviews with members of the research team.

There were other conditions. In exchange for permission to accompany the team, I agreed to show Dr. Sandler all portions of my manuscript pertaining to Al-Sayyid. Because of the exquisite cross-cultural sensitivity their work demands, the linguists are ethically obliged -- and, by extension, so am I -- not to disclose certain personal details about the life and inhabitants of Al-Sayyid that they have learned in the course of their visits. In the end, I chose to show the entire manuscript to Dr. Sandler as well as to the three other linguists on her team, Drs. Irit Meir, Carol Padden and Mark Aronoff. I have welcomed their corrections on matters of fact, their clarifications of technical material, and their suggestions for avenues of further inquiry. Matters of interpretation and emphasis, however, remain mine alone, as do any residual errors.

Dr. Sandler also expressed deep concern that with the publication of my book, this insular, traditional community might be overrun with curiosity-seekers and members of the news media. In keeping with the linguists' own practice, standard for this type of anthropological research, I have changed the name of every villager mentioned in the narrative. I have also disguised the precise location of the village, along with certain other identifying details. Consider Al-Sayyid a kind of signing Brigadoon (although it is very real, and I have seen it), a place utterly impossible for any outsider to find. I trust strongly that none will try.

In one other instance in the narrative, the brief account in Chapter 7 of a scholar who is said to make scientific generalizations about a language that "only he speaks," certain identifying details have been changed to protect the individual's privacy.

In recent decades, the field of sign-language linguistics has established itself as one of the most yeasty, contentious and promising branches of cognitive science. As such, it is awash in competing scholarly opinions. In a book written for a general readership, it is impossible to give an exhaustive account of either the historical development of the discipline or its present state of affairs. What this book offers is an introduction to the linguistic study of sign language in the form of a representative cross section of the field and its preoccupations from its beginnings in the 1960s to the present day. It is a slice -- one of many possible slices -- of sign-language linguistics at the start of the twenty-first century, and is by no means intended to represent the field in toto. A bibliographic essay at the end of the book offers suggestions for further reading.

Some notes on usage: Anyone who writes about deafness quickly discovers that worlds of meaning, politics and identity hang on the capitalization of a single letter: the initial "d" of the word "deaf." In the United States, it is often customary to capitalize "Deaf" when referring to any self-identified member of the large cultural minority, united by common language and traditions, of people who cannot hear. (The word is lowercased when it refers strictly to the audiological condition.) After much deliberation, I have chosen to keep the word "deaf" lowercased throughout the pages of this book. My only motivation is typographic consistency, in particular as it applies to the discussions of Al-Sayyid, where capital-D concepts like "Deaf culture" and "Deaf power" are unknown by virtue of the fact that it is so utterly ordinary to be deaf there. I have, however, retained the original capitalization of the word in all quoted matter.

When one is writing about sign language, verbs of attribution also grow thorny. On a physiological level, no one "speaks" sign language, or ever "says" anything in sign. Sign languages have users. They have signers. But, technically, don't have speakers. A work of this length, however, begs for stylistic variety, and as a result, I sometimes use verbs of speech -- "speak," "say," "talk" -- along with their derivatives, to refer to the act of signed communication, as in the title of the book itself. These words are meant purely as loose, colloquial metaphors, to be understood much as "spoke" is in the title of the anthropologist Nora Groce's lovely book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language.

In a book about cognitive science, the terms "mind" and "brain" also pose a challenge to smooth usage. I have in general adopted the familiar "hardware-versus-software" analogy, using "brain" to refer to the physical structure within the cranial cavity and "mind" to denote the range of operations this physical structure can perform.

Talking Hands is organized into seventeen chapters. The odd-numbered chapters form the narrative of the linguists' visit to Al-Sayyid and their subsequent work deciphering its language. The even-numbered chapters chart the course of sign-language linguistics: Chapters 2 and 4 offer an introduction to the signed languages of the world, and to the aims of modern linguistics. Chapters 6 and 8 chronicle the birth of the scientific study of sign language, and examine the very special conditions that give rise to "signing villages" like Al-Sayyid. Chapters 10 and 12 describe the grammar of signed languages, focusing on the unusual means by which they build words and sentences. Chapters 14 and 16 explore the psychology of sign language -- memory for signs, "slips of the hand," and so on -- and what sign language has to tell us about the neurological workings of human language in the brain.

Finally, a note on sign-language transcription. Following the convention of sign-language linguistics, the English glosses for signs are printed in small capital letters: FATHER, ROOSTER, THINK. Where a single sign is glossed using two or more English words, they are linked with hyphens: YOUNGER-BROTHER, TAKE-CARE-OF, LEFT-SIDE. Compound signs are glossed with a ligature mark: THRILL^INFORM. Words spelled out by means of the manual alphabet are capitalized and hyphenated: W-A-T-E-R.

Text copyright © 2007 by Margalit Fox


Excerpted from Talking Hands by Margalit Fox Copyright © 2007 by Margalit Fox. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Talking Hands 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
SactoReader555 More than 1 year ago
To be honest I haven't read it myself but I work at a library where this has become very popular by word of mouth.  One person I spoke to has a deaf family member and she was fascinated by this book.  I just checked it out I'm looking forward to reading this very well written book.