-- Oliver Sacks, M.D.
Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mindby 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 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.
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Read an Excerpt
What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind
By Margalit Fox
Simon & Schuster
Copyright © 2008 Margalit Fox
All right reserved.
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 capsizetheir 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 of transatlantic 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
The house is a lighted island in a sea of gathering dark. The sun has just gone down, and the desert breeze blowing in through the large open windows is cooler now. Outside, just beyond the house, fields of yellow stubble give way to a flat expanse of sand and scrub that stretches toward the distant hills ringing the horizon. A band of vermilion hangs above the hills, and above that, the sky is an inverted bowl of deep turquoise. Across the sand, a line of shadowy forms can be seen picking its way slowly toward the house: the village camels, home for the night.
From a nearby mosque, the muezzin's call to prayer floats through the open windows. The windows have deep marble sills but no glass, for the house is barely half-finished. Right now it is little more than walls, sheer slabs of whitewashed concrete that seem to rise organically from the surface of the desert. There is no front door yet, and no front steps: you enter, perilously, by clawing your way up a steep concrete ramp coated with blown sand. Inside, the house is hollow. Its half-dozen rooms have neither doors nor windows, and underfoot, where the floor will be, is only hard-packed dirt. Garlands of electrical wires sprout from the bare white walls; a black rubber hose of indeterminate purpose snakes across the ground from room to room. That is all there is to the house so far, but its raw state suits the desert.
On this summer evening, the half-built house is alive with people. In the main room, which overlooks the hills, the owner of the house, a stocky man in an untucked plaid shirt, has set a long plastic banquet table on the earthen floor, with a dozen plastic patio chairs around it. The table is filling with food. Children materialize with platters of nuts, sunflower seeds and miniature fruit -- tiny pears, nectarines and plums. A tray of small china cups is set out, and a boy of about twelve enters, carrying a brass coffeepot, blackened from use, with a graceful spout curved like a pelican's beak. He pours the coffee: thick, black, sweet and tasting of cardamom. At the other end of the table, a boy with a Thermos pours strong, sweet tea into small glasses crammed with fresh mint.
People start to take their seats. At the head of the table, the owner is joined by a group of men in their thirties and forties. Down one side of the table is a row of boys in graduated sizes, from toddlers to teenagers. More children play on the floor nearby; some very young ones, a few girls among them, peer shyly into the room from behind the door frame. At the foot of the table sits a knot of visitors. There are six of us: four scholars of linguistics, a video camera operator and me. We have all traveled great distances, some of us crossing oceans, to be in this half-finished house tonight.
The man and his family are Bedouins, and the house is at the edge of their village, Al-Sayyid. Though they live in the desert, the Bedouins of Al-Sayyid are not nomads: their people have inhabited this village, tucked into an obscure corner of what is now Israel, miles from the nearest town, for nearly two hundred years. There are no timeless figures from T. E. Lawrence here, wandering the sands in billowing robes. These Bedouins are rooted, even middle-class. Men and boys are bareheaded and dressed in Western clothing, mostly T-shirts and jeans. Families live in houses, some with indoor plumbing and vast sofas upholstered in plush. They own automobiles, computers and VCRs. But there is something even more remarkable about the Al-Sayyid Bedouins, and that is what has brought the team of scholars here this evening: a highly unusual language, spoken only in this village and never documented until now.
The house is a Babel tonight. Around the long table, six languages are in use at once, conversation spilling across conversation. There are snatches of English, mostly for my benefit. There is Hebrew: two of the linguists are from an Israeli university, and many of the men of Al-Sayyid speak it as well. There is a great deal of Arabic, the language of the home for Bedouins throughout the Middle East. But in the illuminated room, it is the other languages that catch the eye. They are signed languages, the languages of the deaf. As night engulfs the surrounding desert and the cameraman's lights throw up huge, signing shadows, it looks as though language itself has become animate, as conversations play out in grand silhouette on the whitewashed walls.
There are three signed languages going. There is American Sign Language, used by one of the visitors, a deaf linguist from California. There is Israeli Sign Language, the language of the deaf in that country, whose structure the two Israeli scholars have devoted years to analyzing. And there is a third language, the one the linguists have journeyed here to see: a signed language spoken in this village and nowhere else in the world.
The language is Al-Sayyid's genetic legacy. In this isolated traditional community, where marriage to outsiders is rare, a form of inherited deafness has been passed down from one generation to the next for the last seventy years. Of the 3,500 residents of the village today, nearly 150 are deaf, an incidence forty times that of the general population. As a result, an indigenous signed language has sprung up here, evolving among the deaf villagers as a means of communication. That can happen whenever deaf people come together. But what is so striking about the sign language of Al-Sayyid is that many hearing villagers can also speak it. It permeates every aspect of community life here, used between parents and children, husbands and wives, from sibling to sibling and neighbor to neighbor. At every hour of the day, in the houses, in the fields and in the mosque, there are people conversing in sign. In Al-Sayyid, the four linguists have encountered a veritable island of the deaf.
Their work here will occupy them for years to come, in all likelihood for the rest of their careers. They plan to observe the language, to record it, and to produce an illustrated dictionary, the first-ever documentary record of the villagers' signed communication system. But the linguists are after something even larger. Because Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language has arisen entirely on its own, outside the influence of any other language, it offers a living demonstration of the "language instinct," man's inborn capacity to create language from thin air. If the linguists can decode this language -- if they can isolate the formal elements that make Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language a language -- they will be in possession of a new and compelling body of evidence in the search for the ingredients essential to all language, signed and spoken. And in so doing, they will have helped illuminate one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human.Text copyright © 2007 by Margalit Fox
Excerpted from Talking Hands by Margalit Fox Copyright © 2008 by Margalit Fox. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Margalit Fox is a public speaker and an award-winning reporter in the famed obituary news department of The New York Times as well a former New York Times Book Review editor. Fox has a master's degrees in linguistics from Stony Brook University and a masters degree from Columbia Journalism. she lives in Manhattan with her husband, the writer and critic George Robinson..
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