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Seeing voices: the poetry of Sign

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Essay | 18 minute read
The language of deaf communities has faced centuries of prejudice and misunderstanding but Sign is the equal of speech, lending itself both to the rigorous and the poetic

I discovered the thrilling four-dimensionality of Sign language twenty years ago, when I first read the late neurologist Oliver Sacks’ radiant Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf. I had been fumbling around blindly with ideas for a fantasy novel, looking for inspiration about modes of language. Sacks’ book, originally published in 1989, dismantled my preconceptions about consciousness in one of those intoxicating revelations that happen rarely in our lives. That fantasy novel sits somewhere in the ether, stubbornly unwritten, but Sacks’ book has remained a treasured companion.

Last October, I was reminded of the importance of Seeing Voices by another story I was researching, a profile of the Eritrean fashion bloggers, Hermon and Heroda Berhane, twins who became deaf on the same day, at seven years old. They talk about this moment in a YouTube video: Heroda narrates their loss of hearing with a heartbreaking sign resembling a plummeting bird. ‘Signing is physical, it’s visual,’ the twins told me later. ‘It relies quite a lot on facial expressions, and on a positive vibe, so that’s really the aim of our blog: we want to educate people on what sign language means, and give them a sense of deaf awareness.’

I realised I wanted to return to Seeing Voices again, with a closer reading this time, trying to process the more difficult concepts about language acquisition and neural plasticity but with the input of people who have a personal understanding and experience of deafness. As Sacks says in his preface: ‘I am an outsider, with no special knowledge or expertise, but also, I think, with no prejudices, no axe to grind, no animus in the matter.’

Seeing Voices is really three long essays in one, with a dense but rewarding section of notes that Sacks, with typical humour and humility, introduces as ‘mental or imaginative excursions, to be taken, or avoided, as the reader-traveller chooses.’ The three long chapters, written at different times in the 1980s, explore the history of the deaf, the nature of language and its acquisition, and the explosion of Deaf Pride that occurred close to the book’s publication at the end of that decade. At the book’s core, and where it is most exhilarating, is a discussion of ‘the other side of deafness – the special powers of visuality and sign’.

The Behane twins – Hermon, left, Heroda, right (Photo by Aneesa Dawoojee http://www.aneesaphotography.co.uk/)

The history of the deaf – up to at least the last few decades – is a grim and brutal episode in human existence, one of those bitter lessons we seem to struggle as a species to absorb. ‘Those who are born deaf all become senseless and incapable of reason,’ muses Aristotle, a sentiment largely unchallenged for the next two millennia, with generations of the deaf denied personhood or religion (those that could not hear the Word were not considered human). Socrates is a rare contrarian. ‘If we had neither voice nor tongue,’ he speculates, ‘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?’

Socrates’ visionary compassion moved the eighteenth-century Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée to reach out to the poor and homeless of his Parisian congregation and found the world’s first free school for the deaf. De l’Épée had recognised the communicative potential of what he called ‘the mimicry of the impoverished deaf’ and was able to teach the students to read by combining these signs with French grammar – a sort of proto-Sign, facilitating access to a greater intellectual corpus. It would be more than two centuries before it was properly understood that this physical ‘mimicry’ was a language in and of itself, and that de l’Épée had in fact made this proudly independent visual language the shackled slave of speech.

‘It remains an almost universal delusion of the hearing now,’ says Sacks in Seeing Voices. ‘It must be understood that Sign is the equal of speech, lending itself equally to the rigorous and the poetic – to philosophical analysis or to making love.’ It is not until a student of de l’Épée’s school arrives in the UK, in the early nineteenth century, that the first foundation stones of true cognisance are laid. Laurent Clerc is a hero of unparalleled stature in deaf culture. With his hearing permanently damaged by a violent childhood fall, he studied and taught at de l’Épée’s school, before travelling to Britain to deliver lectures on the school’s method of ‘manual communication’. There he met the American preacher Thomas Gallaudet, whose concern for the deaf child of a neighbour had motivated an interest in the ‘oralist’ method practiced by the Braidwood school for the deaf in Scotland. Gallaudet had been frustrated by this brush with oralism, with its focus on lip-reading and vocalisation, but he saw promise in Clerc’s signs, and the two left for the United States to found the American Asylum for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. So begins the long antagonism between Sign and oralism that would not develop into an uneasy truce for another two hundred years.

The Asylum flourished, with Clerc’s system cross-pollinating the indigenous sign languages already extant in American deaf communities, such as the congenitally deaf Kentish Weald immigrants of Martha’s Vineyard. The central decades of the nineteenth century are regarded as a ‘golden age’ for deaf culture. In 1864, Gallaudet’s son Edward became principal of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and the Blind in Washington; the institution is now Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university for the deaf in the world, and a global leader in every facet of deaf awareness and research.

By 1869, over 40 per cent of teachers for the deaf in America were deaf themselves, and there were an estimated 550 teachers of the deaf worldwide. But the death of Laurent Clerc in that year symbolically foreshadowed a monstrous reversal.

The coetaneous doctrine of oralism, whose aspiration was the assimilation of the deaf into mainstream society, was finding traction in the slippery panic of nativism that was spreading like an oil spill across the United States in the 1870s. The robust evolution of American Sign Language (ASL), and the rude health of newspapers and clubs for the deaf, were being demonised as another unruly limb of a body of mass immigration; thousands of Eastern and Southern Europeans were arriving on American shores every year. It is here that the unlikeliest of villains – himself a Scottish immigrant – steps onto a darkening stage. Alexander Graham Bell had been tinkering with theories about the production of sound for several years, fired by a passion to alleviate the circumstances of his wife and mother, who were both profoundly deaf. He was fanatically oralist in allegiance, and had begun teaching the deaf, with an oralist methodology, in Boston in 1871. Alarmed by the success of Gallaudet’s competing modus, he visited school boards with a sinister warning: ASL was French, a foreign idea undermining American values, and it needed to be stopped.

That the inventor of the telephone would thrust such chaos into the lives of the deaf is an irony that chills the blood. Still more chilling is Bell’s belief in eugenics – he opposed deaf people marrying one another, and sought to eliminate any organisation that promoted the integrity of a deaf culture distinct in any way from orthodox society. By 1880, he was getting his wish. The infamous Milan International Congress of Educators of the Deaf – from which the deaf themselves were excluded – proscribed the use of Sign and recommended oralism as the new Word: the deaf were to be taught to speak, like it or not. Sacks, scientist as he was, remarks on this atrocity from the forgiving side of objectivity: ‘Perhaps this was in keeping with the spirit of the age, its overwhelming sense of science as power, of commanding nature and never deferring to it.’

Oliver Sacks (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The legacy of Milan was a dark age for deaf culture that lasted for nearly a century. Deaf students in residential schools were instructed to keep their hands by their sides; in one example, at the Clarke School in Massachusetts, the use of Sign was punished by the imposition of white gloves tied at the wrists (it should still be remembered that the use of handcuffs on a present-day deaf suspect is tantamount to gagging). Though attitudes about oralism were beginning to change by the 1950s in the United States, they persisted in the UK until the mid-1970s. The 1973 BBC Horizon documentary The Curtain of Silence is a disturbing snapshot of an attitude towards deafness that had dominated since Victorian times. Classes of deaf children wearing grotesque amplificatory headgear – Clockwork Orange torture apparatus for the ears – attempt to repeat the vocalisations of their teacher, as a sonorous, pitying RP narration thunders, ‘They are learning to lip read, to understand the meaning behind flickering lips, for without some form of language, there is little hope of gaining any of the knowledge we take for granted.’

It is the Daily Mail made flesh in an episode of Dr Who, the cultural might of the conservative norm at its most frightening. Sign is dismissed as an esoteric oddity, a trifling thing of little consequence: ‘For a deaf person who hasn’t learned to speak, this is the easiest way of talking. It’s slow, and few hearing people understand sign language.’ The underlying implication is unambiguous – if it doesn’t suit the majority, what good is it anyway?

Sacks makes it clear that ‘deafness as such is not the affliction; affliction enters with the breakdown of communication and language.’ A 1979 report called The Deaf School Child, led by the psychologist Reuben Conrad, showed that half of all deaf school-leavers in the UK were functionally illiterate, findings that supported similar data from the United States. And a brilliant young linguist at Gallaudet, William Stokoe, had twenty years earlier already published a landmark paper, ‘Sign Language Structure’, which would eventually change the deaf landscape forever. ‘Sign language, at this time, was not seen as a proper language, but as a sort of pantomime or gestural code … a sort of broken English on the hands,’ says Sacks. ‘It was Stokoe’s genius to see, and prove, that it satisfied every linguistic criterion of a genuine language, in its lexicon and syntax, its capacity to generate an infinite number of propositions.’ This was an idea so groundbreaking that even the deaf students and faculty at Gallaudet responded with hostile suspicion. Sacks is pithy about this richly perplexing human frailty: ‘The users of a language, above all, will tend to a naïve realism, to see their language as a reflection of reality, not as a construct.’

It is at this point in Seeing Voices that Sacks invites us to plunge into the dizzying, gelatinous chasm of abstraction that is the study of the nature of language, i.e. ‘what separates thought from non-thought, what separates the human from the nonhuman,’ and the crucial period from birth to early childhood that is the precious, ever-shrinking window of native language-learning. ‘It is impossible to acquire language without some essential innate ability [the deep structure proposed by the linguist Noam Chomsky],’ he says. ‘But this ability is only activated by another person who already possesses linguistic power and competence.’ If a prelingually deaf baby is lucky enough to be exposed to the language of Sign, their minds will piece together the grammar that distinguishes true language from surface representation. Ursula Bellugi, a researcher on the biological bases of language and a titan in this field who Sacks cites regularly, likens this flowering of language in a child’s brain to ‘the biological development of an embryo’.

The lot of the less lucky is a cruel one, as Professor Bencie Woll, a linguist and scholar of sign language at UCL’s Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre, is explaining to me in her office in Bloomsbury. The Victorian room is high-ceilinged and airy, an apt space for a sign language linguist; there is an enormous wooden sculpture of a signing hand in one corner. Professor Woll, a friend of Sacks’ (‘he was deeply eccentric, a completely strange person, but wonderful in many ways’), tells me about a deaf East African man she encountered who had never learned to sign. He was unable to complete an evaluation task in which the subject is asked to order cards, depicting a car tyre puncture, into temporal sequence. ‘And yet he had a normal intelligence, but this completely devastating lack of language,’ she says. ‘And that really has to be attributable to the fact that as an adult, it’s too late to learn a first language. That innate faculty in the brain that makes sense of that kind of input is not used at a time when it’s most plastic.’

The consequences are obvious. A child deprived of true Sign may go on to make use of, according to Sacks, ‘simple gestural systems that may have a rudimentary syntax and morphology of a very limited sort,’ but grammar and syntax, the capacity to ‘propositionise’ and order thoughts in a coherent inner voice, will never properly develop. It is worth stating here what Sign is and is not. There is no universal sign language; there are, however, over two hundred indigenous sign languages around the world. ASL and BSL (British Sign Language) are not the same, and share only 31 per cent identical and 44 per cent cognate signs (UCL’s online BSL Signbank has video clips of around 2,500 signs, but due to the various inflections possible with each root sign, it is difficult to estimate the size of any sign language lexicon). Neither does Sign belong to the family of manually coded languages such as military tactical signs or the ‘tic-tac’ of horse racing. Sign can utilise, but is not the same as, finger spelling, or Signed English (a slow and laborious literal representation of English vocabulary). Sign is a language, says Sacks, that is ‘treated as such by the brain, even though it is visual rather than auditory, and spatially rather than sequentially organized… Sign is natural to all who learn it.’ And then, the lines that sent shivers down my spine twenty years ago, one of those ecstatic instants when a book reveals something so profound you are obliged to close it for a second to recognise the enormity of its gift:

‘The “surface” of Sign may appear simple to the eye, like that of gesture or mime, but one soon finds that this is an illusion, and what looks so simple is extraordinarily complex and consists of innumerable spatial patterns nested, three-dimensionally, in each other … Thus the deaf, and their language, show us not only the plasticity but the latent potentials of the nervous system … Signed language is not merely proselike and narrative in structure, but essentially “cinematic” too.’

In the café on the top floor of the Financial Times building in the City of London, Ben Fletcher, who has been deaf since birth, is scrolling his ‘thinking’ sign as he deconstructs my question: with what advantages does this ingress to a spatial grammar, a truly visual inner world, furnish the native signer?

Fletcher, who is principal engineer at the FT, weighs the question carefully. His hand, hovering at jaw height, is a cascading ripple of finger tips, like an animated ellipsis, the kind you might see on your phone screen when someone is typing a response in a messaging app. It’s hypnotic and beautiful, and I am happy for now just to watch Ben think.

His interpreter, Esther Rose Bevan, a fluent signer and child of deaf adults (‘coda’), is signing beside me; no one is speaking but two people are talking. There is a rustle of fingers hitting fingers over a whispered, sub-vocal tapestry of gentle sound. My mind reminds itself not to fetishise this otherness, and remember that this is human communication, but I am rapt – it is mesmerising to witness.

Fletcher begins telling me about his new hobby of rock climbing. ‘I decided to have some coaching, and unfortunately my coach doesn’t know sign language,’ he says. ‘But when we were talking about the different techniques, he was trying to use English, but it’s a real nuisance, because when you’re talking about the way you twist your body…’ At this point, Fletcher is laughing over Bevan’s translation, because she is struggling to formulate an English description for his signs, which are using three dimensions to articulate a particular climbing form. ‘The coach had to type this great long script explaining everything about it,’ he says. ‘And in sign language it takes just a handful of signs.’

It’s a striking example of Sign’s cinematic ‘staging’ potency – its inherent three-dimensionality (four if you count the use of the body, particularly in storytelling). Professor Woll illustrates this to me with the parsing of a poem in Sign by the celebrated poet and deaf activist Dorothy Miles. ‘It’s about a sleepy Sunday afternoon,’ she says. ‘And there’s one point where she is saying, I’m asleep, and the dog is asleep, and there’s a bird on the tree also sleeping, but she uses her body for herself. Then she holds the three at the same time… So what you have is a use of time and space which is not really a sentence. That kind of thing is a unique characteristic, and people who can do it well are highly valued as storytellers or poets.’

There are a number of exceptional examples of Sign poetry online, but to get an inkling of how space, time and scale can be expertly manipulated by a deaf signer, find ‘Mushroom’ by Clayton Valli, which stirs in the observer a feeling akin to witnessing the fabric of reality being stretched and sculpted like clay. In her TED Talk, ‘The Enchanting Music of Sign Language’, the profoundly deaf ‘sound artist’ Christine Sun Kim compares these intricate modalities to the notes of a chord – facial expression, body movement, speed, hand shape and hand position can all change the meaning of a sign such as ‘love’ when inflected differently: the blooming fist of ‘fall in love’ can become ‘colonisation’; ‘colonisation’ can become ‘enlightenment’. Bittersweet puns galore.

(Photo by Don Kelsen/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

This visual acuity gives native signers significant workplace advantages. ‘When a problem arises, I find it easier to spot the problem,’ Fletcher says. ‘And I think that’s got something to do with the way that my mind maps everything, and I can see how it should look when it’s working together. For hearing people, because they’re thinking more linearly, it’s less joined up, and it becomes more complicated for them to see things as a bigger picture.’ Or as the deaf actor Robert DeMayo puts it: ‘You know those Where’s Waldo books? They’re so easy for deaf people.’

Sacks is unequivocal about Sign’s separateness, and its superiority, in some aspects, to spoken language. Sign is at once able to ‘ascend to the most abstract propositions,’ he says, and ‘simultaneously evoke a concreteness, a vividness, a realness, an aliveness, that spoken languages, if they ever had, have long since abandoned.’ This particularity, its emblematic dignity, is gradually and quietly making itself known to a wider cultural consciousness. Since the seminal event that ends Seeing Voices, the 1988 student protests at Gallaudet that successfully demanded a deaf university president, there has been a slow but perceptible shift in public comprehension, if not yet at a British governmental level. Fletcher laments the present government’s focus on mainstreaming; his five-day access to an interpreter has been cut in half as a result. Perhaps we still see the deaf as lacking our language, rather than recognising a more fundamental imaginative deficiency in ourselves. The famous deaf American ‘design thinker’ Elise Roy has said funding accommodation for the deaf ‘can leverage unique perspectives: this moves us from the deficiency mindset of tolerance, to becoming an alchemist, the type of magician that this world desperately needs.’

There is a remarkable recent documentary called AlphaGo, about the DeepMind algorithm that beat global Go champion Lee Sedol by four games to one. Crushed at first by this humiliation, Lee is then transformed by insight: how the algorithm’s counter-intuitive, beautifully idiosyncratic decisions have kindled a new appreciation for the game he loves. ‘AlphaGo showed us that moves humans thought are creative are actually conventional,’ he says.

The Manchester poet Shamshad Khan, whose poem ‘Silver Thread’ has been translated into BSL and performed on stage with her by a native signer, told me that Sign has a dynamism that transcends English. ‘Some of the signs I learned did indeed have a resonance that went deeper and wider than some of the written or spoken words,’ she says. ‘The sign for “mirror” is a quivering hand; this gave the poem a vulnerability, a shimmer, and a fluidity, and I found I also slowed my delivery of the word as it left, with the aftershadow of the sign. The sign for “blue” was the running of a finger on a vein: a visceral connection.’

A lot has changed since the first publication of Seeing Voices: the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, making discrimination against deaf people in the workplace a criminal offence; the recognition of BSL as a native language in the UK in 2003. But while modernising our slowly maturing democracies, we have also looked for shortcuts that circumvent curiosity and empathy. AI algorithms have become more and more accurate in their real time 3D video-fed translations of Sign into English. Text messaging has, for all of us, made rapid correspondence commonplace but face to face communion easier to avoid – and is itself, curiously, a technological descendant of the teletypewriter, developed in the 1960s as a tool for the deaf. Are we in danger of disincentivising the search for community and social imagination that can liberate our true potential? Seeing Voices sounded its warning three decades ago:

‘It is all too easy to take language, one’s own language, for granted – one may need to encounter another language, or another mode of language, to be pushed into wonder … It is often imagined, vaguely, that sign language is English. It is nothing of the sort; it is itself, Sign.’