October 17, 2013

BOOKS: Talking Hands, Margalit Fox (2007)

Imagine a group of children raised in isolation, whose caretakers do not speak to them, and who have no access to any spoken language. What sort of language would they develop among themselves, and what would it tell us about the way languages are created, or about the innate human instinct for language?

Obviously, this is not an experiment one could ever actually do, which is why linguists jokingly refer to it as "the forbidden experiment." But occasionally, circumstances arise that provide conditions as close to the forbidden experiment as one is ever likely to see, and Margalit Fox's Talking Hands follows a group of linguists as they explore one such rarity.

Al-Sayyid is an isolated village in Israel with a population of about 3,500 and an unusually high rate of genetically inherited deafness; one in 25 residents are deaf (1 in 1,000 is the typical rate). Because of their isolation, the villagers have developed their own sign language, and nearly everyone speaks it, whether they're deaf or not.

It's a new language -- the current generation of children is only the third generation to use it -- which makes it an ideal topic for study into how languages are created and developed. But the team is pressed for time, because the village becomes less isolated with every generation, and bits of Israeli and Arabic Sign Languages are already creeping into the language of those children; it's a bit of a challenge to find kids whose local language is still pure.

It wasn't that long ago, Fox tells us, that studying the sign language of Al-Sayyid would have been considered a waste of time, because sign languages weren't thought to be real languages at all. They were considered merely glorified pantomime, with none of the linguistic subtlety or complexity of spoken language. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that linguists began to realize that sign languages had their own syntax, grammar, and complex rules; and that they were every bit as thoroughly developed as spoken languages were.

Fox alternates between chapters showing the team of linguists at work, collecting data from the people of Al-Sayyid; and chapters on the history of sign language in general, with a focus on how our understanding of such languages has changed and deepend in the last fifty years.

I was particularly fascinated by a chapter on how strokes impact sign language. To oversimplify a bit, we know that language ability is controlled by the left side of the brain, and that dealing with spatial relationships is mostly controlled by the right side of the brain. Given that sign languages are almost always highly organized in space -- a sign made in front of the body might not mean the same thing as the same sign made to one side, for instance -- what happens to the ability to use sign language when a stroke injures one side or the other of the brain?

Fox has degrees in linguistics herself, and does a very good job of discussing the subject in layman's terms. I was fascinated by the history and the details about how sign languages work, and I enjoyed the book very much.

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