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Talking with your hands

Los_amantes_de_TeruelTalk about an obvious title… or maybe not: maybe some of you may think this is about body massage, about communicating your innermost feelings by touch. Not. This is about actually talking with your hands, and although I myself do not know how to do this, I am generally quite entranced when I watch someone sign. It’s like watching a graceful dance, the way the hand move, fingers coming together at times, moving swiftly at others. It is also an official language (well, multiple languages really, and here I must admit to not understanding why all those variants of sign haven’t been merged into an Esperanto version. Seriously; this could be one truly global language) and these days most of us would no more than cast a passing glance at someone signing – except for me, who tends to get stuck on the hand movements. So beautiful, so evocative.

R&R webstamp smallIn my upcoming release, Revenge and Retribution, I have a central character called Lucy Jones. Lucy Jones is pretty and bright, but she struggles with the double handicaps of being a woman – and deaf. In the 17th century, it was hard enough to be female. To have the further drawback of not being able to hear, restricts Lucy’s life markedly – plus, she is automatically assumed to be simple. Lucy most certainly is not simple, but I shall come clean and admit to a certain ambivalence towards Lucy – at times she is far too bright and manipulative for the good of the people around her.

This perception of deaf people as being intellectually challenged was very much the norm back then – unfortunately, similar prejudices are alive and kicking well into our times. As far as I know, intelligence does not sit IN your ears, it sits BETWEEN them – and there is no correlation between the acuity of your ears and that of your brain.

Still, through the ages being deaf – and in most cases correspondingly mute – has left the person in question very much on the fringe of things. Prior to wide-spread reading skills, the deaf and mute lived in bubbles of non-communication – at least with the majority of their contemporaries, those that laughed at them and called them idiots. (In general, I’d hazard only siblings and parents would look out for their deaf family member, take the time to discover the depth of their intelligence and personality) And let’s face it: in an environment where most of your learning was via word of mouth, it WAS a serious handicap not to hear or speak, resulting in deaf people ending up with the more menial of jobs. This is why so many of the well-intentioned expended their efforts on trying to teach the deaf to speak (it was sort of impossible to teach them to hear)

Lucy Jones appeared briefly in the third book of The Graham Saga, The Prodigal Son. More specifically, she was born, and it was as big a surprise to me as to her mother when it turned out Lucy was deaf. Deaf? My brain grappled with this problem. How did one go about supporting people with hearing impairments back then, in the 1660’s? Would there be a sign language? Special schools? From what I could read, the answer was no and no. Obviously, deaf children didn’t need to go to school, they were simple, right? And as to sign language, well of course each little individual would have tried to communicate using hands when their ears didn’t work, and accordingly a number of varieties of sign existed all over the globe. In some places, the sign language became formalised – like among the deaf slaves of the Ottoman court (deaf slaves carried a high value as they were silent and per definition discreet) – and in communities with a high incident of deaf people, local sign languages developed, such as The Old Kent Sign Language. Further to this, there were manual alphabets, but a national – or international – standard does not seem to have existed. Well, except for in one country. Spain.

EHFA Mortimer 2Not that it helped Lucy Jones – she was nowhere close to Spain, nor did her Scottish Presbyterian parents have any desire to go there. This, after all, was before the advent of charter tourism. These days, Spain is chock-full of Presbyterians, and Anglicans, and Methodists and Baptists, and – well, what have you – that would never have dared to set foot in this most Catholic country back then. The Counter Reformation had a thing about rounding up Protestants and submitting them to torture and execution – not, I would say, the best way to advertise a holiday paradise. Ah well; neither here nor there. Back to progressive Spain in the 17th century, a country of culture and arts – and of sign language.

Arte_para_enseñar_a_hablar_a_los_mudosIn Spain, so the story goes, a number of noble families had, over several generations, been afflicted with the birth of deaf children. These Spanish grandees refused to believe the nonsense about their children being less gifted than others merely because they couldn’t hear, and so they insisted their children be educated. In most cases, these noble families could afford their own tutors, and friars and monks were brought in to ensure a thorough and excellent education. In their attempts to communicate with their charges, these friars and monks went from individual manual alphabets to a standardised version. And in the 1620’s, a Spanish gentleman by the name of Juan Pablo Bonet published a book called Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos, in which a codified alphabetisation was presented through a number of engravings. The book was meant to be used to help deaf children to speak and is one of the earlier studies we have of phonetics and speech– and it made it imminently clear that deaf children were NOT stupid. At all.

None of this was of any use to little Lucy. Over time, her parents came to understand their daughter was scarily intelligent, but in her hearts of hearts, Lucy’s mother was disappointed that her only child should be a daughter – and deaf. She had somehow failed in her female duties by producing this single, deficient child.

Moll Davis by Lely, pointingLucy herself is bitterly aware of just how different she is to her contemporaries, knowing full well what they say of her as she walks by, all of them ignorant of her impressive lip-reading skills. It doesn’t matter that she is the most beautiful young woman in Providence, capable of turning men’s heads a full 360 degrees (weeelll…)when she goes swishing down the streets. Or that she is far more intelligent than most of the other people in her life. In the eyes of society, she is defined by one characteristic only; her deafness. Lucy Jones does not take things lying down. But the choices she makes lead to destroyed lives and will ultimately threaten most of Lucy’s family. Not that Lucy truly cares, angrily lashing out at a world that has judged her deficient from the day she was born.

For a brief interlude, all was perfect in Lucy’s world – some weeks in which she hoped that this was the way things would continue forever. But then Henry (Lucy’s husband) was called away to St Mary’s City and the meeting of the Colony’s representatives, and with him went young Farrell. When he returned, it was no longer quite as magic, with Henry once again disappearing to spend evenings – even nights – with his friends. And Lucy’s world shrank back down, to hasty notes and quick caresses, and bitterly she knew that never would she hold him like she wanted to. Not only was she deaf, she was a woman too.

5 thoughts on “Talking with your hands”

  1. authordebrabrown

    A nice post with helpful insight on some of the problems of the deaf. The movie And Your Name is Jonah shows how very difficult it is for a single deaf child and his/her parents in a hearing world–much more so than one can imagine. While home signs were developed in most families, it is relatively recently that a standard sign language was developed enabling communities of the deaf to flourish, giving the deaf a more normal and happy life.

    I dare say the deaf would be shocked (offended?) that we might want to use one of their languages as a universal, international language. After all, it is the hearing that “run the world” (and have screwed it up royally). Why not use one of the hearing languages? Sign languages are equally difficult to master. It might look simple at a glance, but I was immersed in the deaf culture while studying sign for some time and found that after three years I was still frustrated much of the time. (Although I am no spring chicken, and the young learn languages faster. But a young friend said it took her four years of similar submersion to become what she felt was fluent.) Indeed, to unify the world in one sign language would put the burden on the deaf to relearn from their own language to another one. While it was encouraging for many of them to learn ASL when it became fairly standardized in the US, enabling them to seek each other out for association, get higher education, etc., unless they have a career in some international role, they have no need to speak the same language as someone on the other side of the world. They would have the same problems as the hearing–street signs, menus, etc. would be mass confusion.

    A universal sign language would enable the deaf to integrate into a world society if there was one, but only if the hearing learned to speak it, and few learn to speak the local sign languages that do exist. And the way things look right now, borders and divisions between nations are getting stronger again. Imagine trying to convince Putin right now that his people should learn English so we could all get along better–he would probably say, why not Russian? So it would be trying to establish a universal sign language. Which one? Or if we should develop a new one, since sign languages are complex and take years to learn, why not create a new spoken language for the whole world instead? That would make audio communications possible when video fails. Also, when there is no physical impairment (nerve damage or whatever causes a person’s deafness), people naturally tend toward using audible speech. Even those born deaf often make audible sounds when they are communicating. Granted, the hearing gesture while speaking, too. But that does not make sign languages simple.

    I have had some exposure to foreign sign languages, too. They are quite different from ASL. In Korean sign, I love the sign for “man and wife”. They put a thumb next to the pinky of the other hand. But which way is better? Superior? Which sign should be THE sign? Who would decide? A Russian deaf? An Indian? English? Or…. a hearing person? That would likely be the decision of the powers that be–a hearing person would decide. Would that be seen by the deaf as an infringement, an intrusion? Probably.

    And if the hearing were to expect the deaf to learn a universal sign language for the benefit of the hearing world (or should they just be left out?), who is going to pay their way back to the deaf schools to learn them? Deaf schools are sprinkled here and there unlike schools for the hearing which are found in every community. Children are sent away from their families and are roomed and boarded for their educations unless they live near enough. To become fluent in a new sign language, the deaf would need to be submersed in it (as would all the hearing who were to learn it). And unless everyone learned it, it would not be universal. And by the way, even standardized sign languages like ASL have their regional differences, their idioms.

    Don’t think I am picking on you–I had the same thoughts in the past about how cool it would be to have a universal sign language. I think it was because sign language is so beautiful and looks so easy.

    1. An interesting and educational reply… but my point was rather that having a universal sign language would have allowed deaf people a worldwide communication that the hearing have never achieved – well, there was a time when Latin was some sort of lingua franca.

      1. authordebrabrown

        I see. There are still places where there is not even a local organized sign language. Just home sign. So those deaf can only communicate within the family, and that to the extent that family members take the time to create it, figure it out, and it make sense to each member. Believe it or not, there are many persons that can barely communicate with a deaf family member in the same house.

        I was once invited to Indonesia to teach the deaf ASL, since there is no sign language there (other than probably home sign). At least according to the Indonesian family I met. This family wanted to take me in for the project. It would have been fabulous!

  2. Pingback: Why Am I Talking? | RobertMcQ

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