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Social Science


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Sign Language

see Deaf Culture

Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech by William C. Stokoe (Gallaudet University Press) begins his exploration of the origin of human language with a 2400‑year‑old quote by Democritus: "Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity." Stokoe capitalizes upon this simple credo in this farranging examination of the scholarly topography to support his formula for the development of language in humans: gesture‑to‑language-to‑speech. Intrinsic to this is the proposition that speech is sufficient for language, but not necessary. Chance brought human ancestors down from the trees to the ground, freeing their hands for gesture, and later, sign language, a progression that came from the necessity to communicate.

Stokoe recounts in Language in Hand how inspiration grew out of his original discovery in the 1950s and '60s that deaf people who signed were using a true language with constructions that did not derive from spoken English. This erudite, highly engaging investigation calls upon decades of personal experience and published research to refute the recently entrenched claims that humans have a special, innate learning faculty for language and that speech equates with language. Integrating current findings in linguistics, semiotics, and anthropology, Stokoe fashions a closely reasoned argument that suggests how our human ancestors' powers of observation and natural hand movements could have evolved into signed morphemes.

Stokoe also proposes how the primarily gestural expression of language with vocal support shifted to primarily vocal language with gestural accompaniment. When describing this transition, however, he never loses sight of the significance of humans in the natural world and the role of environmental stimuli in the development of language. Stokoe illustrates this contention with fascinating observations of small contemporaries ethic groups such as the Assinibain Nakotas, a Native American group from Montana that intermingle their spoken and signed languages depending upon cultural imperatives.

Language in Hand also presents innovative thoughts on classifiers in American Sign Language and their similarity to certain elements of spoken languages, convincing evidence that speech originally copied sign language forms before developing unrelated conventions through usage. Stokoe concludes Language in Hand with an hypothesis on how the acceptance of sign language as the first language of humans could revolutionize the education of infants, both deaf and hearing, who, like early humans, have the full capacity for language without speech.

William C. Stokoe came to Washington, D.C., in 1955 to teach English to deaf college students, and he soon realized that the intricate movements of their hands and bodies represented a fully developed language that met all linguistic criteria. In the face of initial ridicule and doubt, Stokoe championed the native language of deaf people, which later earned him the reputation as the Father of American Sign Language. But, for Stokoe, this remarkable experience acted only as a springboard to the revolutionary insights he presents in Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech. In this, his last book, Stokoe declares that sign language, not speech, was the first language of our human ancestors.

Stokoe draws from a vast store of disciplines to shape his thoughts about the first human language. He describes the behavior of E. coli bacteria to illustrate the basic need for organisms to change and adapt. He extends Noam Chomsky's first rule of the phrase structure of generative‑transformational grammar S‑‑p‑ NP + VP (a sentence may be rewritten as a noun phrase plus a verb phrase) to sign language with contrary results. His account of the physical development of early humans' complex visual and manual potential in contrast to the physiology of their throats, which most likely limited vocalization, supports one of his original premises: "Try first to imagine who could possibly have told the first speakers what the sounds they produced were supposed to mean."

In Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech, Stokoe convincingly persuades that humans signed first, then spoke. He also offers a seamless explanation of the transitions from signed languages to languages in parallel, to finally, the dominance of speech today. He reestablishes the value of sign language to both hearing and deaf people, a fitting legacy for a preeminent scholar of the origin of language in human beings.

Metaphor in American Sign Language by Phyllis Perrin Wilcox (Gallaudet University Press) Only recently have linguists ceased to regard metaphors as mere frills on the periphery of language and begun to recognize them as cornerstones of discourse. Phyllis Wilcox takes this innovation one step further in her fascinating treatise Metaphor in American Sign Language.

Such an inquiry has long been obscured by, as Wilcox calls it, "the shroud of iconicity." American Sign Language's iconic nature once discouraged people from recognizing it as a language; more recently it has served to confuse linguists examining its metaphors. Wilcox, however, presents methods for distinguishing between icon and metaphor, allowing the former to clarify, not cloud, the latter. As she explains, "If the iconic influence that surrounds metaphor is set aside, the results will be greater understanding and interpretations that are less opaque."

Wilcox concludes her study with a close analysis of the American Sign Language poem, "The Dogs," by Ella Mae Lentz. In presenting Deaf Americans', Deaf Germans', and Deaf Italians' reactions to the poem, Wilcox manages not only to demonstrate the influence of culture upon metaphors, but also to illuminate the sources of socio‑political division within the American Deaf community. Metaphor in American Sign Language proves an engrossing read for those interested in linguistics and Deaf culture alike.

Excerpt: In order to understand ASL metaphors, we have to understand the current theories on metaphor and related tropes. Traditionally, the cognitive force of a conventional metaphor comes from the reconceptualization of information that we already have. New per­spectives on the metaphorical extension of cognitively structured concepts are currently being examined by cognitive linguists and others in different disciplines. This book extends the study of metaphor to signed languages and offers a stepping‑stone for indi­viduals who are interested in looking deeper into issues of metaphorical mapping in ASL.

The questions explored in this book originated from my initial in­quiries into this topic: What is a metaphor? What defines metaphoric mapping and how is it constrained? Why is there so much variation among researchers regarding the identification of metaphorical referents? Are similar referential counterparts found in ASL? This book will not resolve all questions raised. However, it provides a basic corpus of metaphors used by native signers of ASL and provides evidence that signers use metaphors to talk about lan­guage and thought.

Chapter 1 provides background on metaphor theory. In order to analyze metaphors in ASL, one must have a basic concept of a metaphor. There are different theories to consider before settling on a specific hypothesis from which to structure research. A num­ber of theories are presented, along with their respective metaphor­ical components, before introducing the model that is the basis of this study, the experiential theory of metaphor. Several categories of tropes are highlighted, with the main focus on experiential metaphors. Because we model our linguistic expressions on an un­derstanding of social and physical environments, the impact that cultural values of a community have on metaphor will also be noted.

Chapter 2 offers information on classifiers and iconicity, because these linguistic features are relevant to the analysis in later chapters. Research on metaphors and metaphorical mapping in ASL is not extensive. In fact, the linguistic research in this area has begun only recently, often with contradictory results. Several relevant dissertation theses and studies will be discussed in order to compare analyses and findings.

Chapter 3 deals with the methodology and the design of the studies in this book, a description of the consultants and settings, and the procedural methods used. The ethnographic methodology is not the focus of the studies; rather it was used to obtain raw data for the linguistic analysis. This analysis was based on the experiential theory that our linguistic expressions are generated through physical and cognitive interdependency.

In chapter 4 experiential mapping of ASL is found in the interaction of metaphors, metonymy, and similes. The hypothesis that deaf people use metaphors in the language and thought domains is supported from the analysis of the research data. Supporting evidence is also obtained from various resources of ASL (dictionaries, textbooks, certified interpreters of ASL, and commercial videotapes). Chapter 5 analyzes metaphors and metonymy through expressions that represent basic spatialization, orientation, and ontological and structural metaphors. Chapter 6 extends metaphorical mapping from a synchronic investigation to a diachronic search on language change. The etymology of the ASL sign GIVE is tracked from its origin in langue des signes francaise (LSF) to modern ASL. Chapter 7 looks at the impact that culture can have on the comprehension of metaphors and metonyms. Individuals and groups from Albuquerque, New Mexico; Zurich, Switzerland; and Rome, Italy, provided input for that study.

Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language by Ceil Lucas, Robert Bayley, Clayton Valli (Gallaudet University Press) Sociolinguistics emerged prominently in the 1960s celebrating the heterogeneity of language based not only on linguistic constraints but also on variation occasioned by the race, ethnicity, age, gender, and social status of its speakers. Before that, the task of the linguist was a whole lot simpler. Most language teachers needed to pretend that there was such a thing as "a language" that was unified enough to be taught and learned despite the way speakers tended to wander off from the textbook norms.

Overlooking variation may make linguistics simpler, but sooner or later, somebody is going to notice that people don't use language the way the grammars prescribe it. My own first experience with this phenomenon, as a seventh‑grade language arts teacher in 1957, is a case in point. My textbook insisted that "which" should be pronounced with "a puff of air preceding the w." I had never myself distinguished phonologically between the noun "witch" and a relative pronoun. Nor did anyone else in my part of the country, including our mayor and his entire city council. A quick look at the title page of the text showed me that the book was published in Boston, where "hw," the Northern variant, is considered the standard way to begin words like "which." My students and I shrugged our shoulders and went on pronouncing it the way standard English was pronounced in our own area. Acceptable variation always trumps stereotyped standards. Sociolinguistics was a new concept at that time, a few years earlier than the blossoming studies of social variation in the sixties.

Sociolinguistics has come a long way in the past forty years, beginning with phonological and morphological variation, then followed by analyses of syntactic variation and discourse interaction features. In the early years of sociolinguistics, primary attention was given to English variability, but this soon expanded to other languages and other parts of the world.

About the same time that sociolinguistics was emerging, a small cadre of linguists, led by William Stokoe, faced an infinitely larger task, that of proving to a skeptical world that American Sign Language (ASL) was indeed a full‑fledged language. In retrospect, it appears that early accurate descriptions of variation in ASL actually worked against the primary goal of getting it accepted as a real language. Pretty much the same thing happened with the early descriptions of English vernaculars, which were often misunderstood to be proof of cognitive deficits of their speakers. But such is the folly of assuming that variation, even ASL variation, is not patterned and systematic. It seems that linguists perpetually need to remind (or inform) the general public that variation is not only healthy for keeping a language vital and changing, as the authors point out, but that it is also an important factor in our humanity, opening the door to the creativity that permits such things as poetry. Equally important is the message to linguistic laypersons that language variations are structured, systematic, and living proof that those who use one variety have just as much cognitive ability as those who use another one.

With the advent of an increasing number of sociolinguists who specialize in ASL, it is only natural that this now accepted real language would get the deserved attention that this book provides. Its uniqueness comes from the fact that a unified exposition of ASL sociolinguistics has hitherto not been put forth. It is natural for developing specializations to begin with scattered articles on parts of the issue. Later, with the maturation and a coming together of like‑minded people, the pieces and parts are put together in this way.

The standard methodology of sociolinguistics is to gather as much data as possible and let the data drive the analysis. This contrasts with approaches used in some other fields, which often begin with a hypothesis and then find data to either prove or disprove it. There may always be questions about whether sociolinguistic samples are representative, adequate, or unusual in other ways. But, whatever qualms an experimental researcher might have had about this type of research, there can be no question but that we learn very important things in the process. This project is to be congratulated for videotaping representatives from different areas of the United States, different ethnicities, different ASL backgrounds, different ages, different socioeconomic statuses, and different genders. That data of such excellent quality were produced is a tribute to the sensitive and creative approach taken by the authors.

It should also be pointed out that the product of this research is not a dictionary or an encyclopedia of all types of extant ASL variation. To do so would be a lifetime work, similar to the Dictionary of American Regional English or the Oxford English Dictionary. Instead, the researchers focus on targets, in this case targets of phonological and morphosyntactic variables that have been studied earlier in smaller studies. These target variables are representative of other features in their categories, ones that future researchers might wish to study further. Proceeding in this way is reminiscent of the early work in Vernacular Black English by Labov (1966) and by Wolfram (1969), in which a small number of target features were studied in a large sample of speakers in New York and Detroit, respectively.

Language attitudes and policies are also an important aspect of sociolinguistic research. The authors of this study provide a brief and poignant description of the subjective reactions and policies of various schools for deaf people, information crucial to the actual production of ASL by the representatives of those schools. As the authors point out, policies are often a product of the influence of individuals. This too is not unusual. Perhaps it is not surprising that the first known policy for accepting ASL to meet a graduate school language requirement was created in the early 1970s at Georgetown University, a direct result of the persuasiveness of individuals on the sociolinguistic faculty at that university.

Some of the findings of this book are not surprising. For example, sociolinguists will not be shocked to learn that the variation found here is systematic and regular, just as we found it to be in Vernacular Black English in the 1960s It is also not too surprising that internal linguistic constraints and external social constraints on variation, such as those found in spoken languages, are also present in a manually signed language. Those who knew all along that ASL was a real language are not at all shocked to learn that ASL behaves much like a spoken language, but it is very nice to have empirical proof of this. To be sure, there are important differences in the details of the variations and the social and interactive factors that cause them, one of the most interesting aspects of this book.

On the other hand, it is somewhat surprising that the distribution of such regularity does not always follow the predictable regional lines found in dialects of spoken American English. It is surprising that some phonological variables in Virginia and Washington are more like each other than they are to more neighboring signers. As usual, however, the authors explain the reason for this. And even the veteran sociolinguist might be surprised at the authors' discovery of the strong role of grammatical function in ASL phonological variation.

Signed Languages: Discoveries from International Research edited by Valerie Dively, Melanie Metzger, Sarah Taub, Marie Baer (Gallaudet University Press) This collection presents the freshest, most innovative research from the sixth Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research conference in 1998. Divided into six sections, it focuses on previously ignored international signed languages. Part One addresses articulatory constraints and the signed language of the Netherlands. In Part Two, researchers tackle noun classifiers, nonhanded signs, and verb classes in the signed languages of Sweden, the United States, and Israel. Part Three, Psycholinguistics, offers the study, "Functional Consequences of Modality: Spatial Coding in Working Memory for Signs."

Language acquisition is analyzed in both adult learners and deaf children in Part Four. Part Five studies the relationship between language and society around the world, concentrating on the signed languages of Venezuela and northern Nigeria. Part Six considers the techniques employed in British Sign Language poetry and ASL poetry. Signed Languages sets the standard for current signed language research, becoming an essential resource for every linguist's and Deaf studies scholar's library.

 In the first of two chapters on phonology, Mathur and Rathmann focus on articulatory phonetics. They address the role of joint‑based constraints in the articulation of signed language phonology and the implications of these constraints in terms of signed language morphology. The second chapter addresses phonological processes. In her examination of the Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN), van der Kooij finds that weak drop in SLN, as it is in American Sign Language (ASL), is acceptable for balanced signs in which both hands move symmetrically with respect to each other. However, contrary to prior claims, she finds that weak drop is not blocked on the basis of alternating movement and contralateral articulation (crossing the midsagittal plane). Rather, she finds that semantic, iconic, and possibly even nonmanual aspects play a role in these cases.

Part 2, on morphoricaligical morophology and tutu syntax, includes papers  that cover materiel  manually produced nouns and verbs as well as the morphological status of nonhanded signs. Bergman and Wallin discuss the morphological relationship of noun classifiers to nouns in Swedish Sign Language, specifically, in narrative discourse. Dively challenges the notion that nonhanded signs such as affirmative headnods and negative headshakes are bound morphemes in ASL. She analyzes the form, meaning, and function of eight nonhanded ASL signs. Finally, Meir focuses on Israeli Sign Language in her study of spatial and agreement verbs. She proposes a specific lexical decomposition analysis that seems to predict verb classification in Israeli Sign Language and, potentially, in other signed languages.

In the section on psycholinguistics (part 3), Wilson and Emmorey counter their own earlier claims regarding the role of abstract properties of language in the structure of working memory. In this chapter based on their new data, they propose that the modality of a language does affect the structure and functioning of working memory and, hence, carries implications regarding cognition.

Language acquisition is the focus of part 4. Regarding second language acquisition, Mirus, Rathmann, and Meier find that hearing adults who are learning ASL as a second language struggle with proximalization and distalization of sign movement. This finding has both pedagogical and interactive implications. For example, hearing signers' sign movement impediments might cause native ASL users to perceive them as aggressive.

While Mirus, Rathmann, and Meier focus on phonological features in second language acquisition, Vercaingne‑Menard, Godard, and Labelle address first language acquisition and the acquisition of narrative discourse in deaf children who use Quebec Sign Language (LSQ). They study the development of story grammar in two deaf children of hearing parents. Their findings show that, during a two‑year period (between the ages of 4 and 6 for each child), the children are able to close a two‑year gap in narrative grammar.

Part 5 addresses both pragmatics and sociolinguistics. One chapter focuses on sociolinguistic variation analysis, one on politeness, and one on language contact as well as language maintenance or death. Hoopes, Rose, Bayley, Lucas, Wulf, Petronio, and Collins analyze the theoretical and methodological issues that are related to signed language variation research. Three different studies are described: one focusing on lexical variation, one on phonological variation, and one on variation at all linguistic levels between visual and tactile ASL. The three studies are compared in terms of both methodological approach and findings and, therefore, provide a unique perspective regarding the sociolinguistic analysis of signed languages.

As the Deaf community has grown together internationally, an increasing number of signed languages have come into contact. African countries, as have some other countries, have been besieged by ASL and some European signed languages, which have already received the attention of researchers. Consequently, the signed languages of these countries have a more prestigious linguistic status than are generally attributed to indigenous signed languages. In the chapter on Hausa Sign Language, Schmaling discusses some of the difficulties that confront researchers in Northern Nigeria (and other African countries) who face the challenge of distinguishing between the native signed languages and the influence on those native languages of signed languages that are foreign to that country. The findings of this study suggest that Hausa Sign Language, though subject to borrowing from ASL, is surviving as a distinct language.

The work of two poets is addressed in part 6. Taub provides an analysis of the conceptual metaphors used in an ASL poem by Ella Mae Lentz, "The Treasure," demonstrating how one poet has used linguistic resources to blend linguistic and cultural metaphors to make artistic and dramatic statements about important issues. Sutton‑Spence focuses on British Sign Language (BSL) poetry in her analysis of the work of Dorothy Miles. Through her analysis of Miles's BSL poem "Trio," Sutton‑Spence finds that the BSL poetry incorporates features similar to those that have been found in British English poetry.

Clearly, the contents of this volume reflect a broad range of topics from both formal and functional schools of thought. In addition, despite the fact that the TISLR conference was held in the United States and despite the historical prevalence of ASL (both in research and missionary zeal), less than half of the chapters focus on American Sign Language as the language of discussion.

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