Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Sign, Part 2

I still remember a few of my favorite signs: “cute” (index and second fingers lightly flicking the chin twice), “drunk” (drawing the hand in front of the forehead while rapidly scissoring the index and middle fingers like a swimmer’s legs), and “and” (closing the tips of the fingers of the open hand against the thumb while moving it in front of the chest-—the speed with which it is done indicating emphasis). Many more are coming to mind as I’m thinking of them, but….

I took a sign class at the gay Metropolitan Community Church in L.A. and toyed for a moment with the idea of becoming an interpreter, but I never came close to the level of proficiency required. But I learned a lot, and found it fascinating.

ASL (American Sign Language) is derived from French, where sign originated as a separate language. It’s quite different from spoken English, primarily in its grammatical structure. (For example, adjectives tend to follow nouns, not precede them as in English.)

Sign is in some ways a form of shorthand. Whereas in spoken English we might say “I’m going to go to the store,” that would most likely be signed as “I go store.” Says exactly the same thing, but far more compactly. And just as the hearing can tell, by listening to someone speak, what part of the country they’re from, so can the deaf. Sign has its own distinct dialects, and word usage varies from one part of the country to the next.

The hearing learning sign tend to sign as they normally speak, in grammatical English, adding all the unnecessary words and putting them in the word order of spoken English. There’s even a sign for “signing English”...the hands clasped together at the waist primly, in the fashion of a spinster’s addressing her garden club.

Before there were personal computers, the phone company provided what were called TTY machines, which were basically Text Messaging machines, complete with a printout feature on adding machine tape. You’d type your message, then type “G.A.” (“go ahead”) to let the other person know you were through. I had one for use with Mark and Rob, and it’s quite likely they don’t even make TTYs anymore.

I got a kick out of the fact that, in large gatherings with other deaf, it’s difficult to have a truly private conversation: anyone who can watch their hands, from anywhere in the room, knows exactly what they’re talking about.

There is an incredibly strong division within the deaf community on the issue of whether or not the deaf should learn to speak even though they cannot hear. My friend Mark was vehement on the subject: deaf since birth, his parents had sent him to a school which insisted he learn to speak. He did learn, but he refused to use it. “Why should I learn to speak in order to communicate with the hearing? Let them learn sign!” Even Rob, having lived in both worlds, felt strongly that to insist the deaf learn to speak was a perverse form of discrimination.

The division is particularly deep when it comes to devices such as cochlear implants, which allow the deaf to hear. Those who support these implants argue with some justification that hearing is necessary to get along in today’s world. Others disagree vehemently, saying their use can destroy the deaf community and culture. It’s rather like someone coming up with a “cure” for being gay. Many...probably the vast majority...of both gays and the deaf see absolutely nothing wrong with being the way God made them and are proud and defensive of their culture. Conformity can be culturally destructive.

I miss signing, and now that I’m back in Chicago, should look into taking a course here. Care to join me? I think you’d like it.

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