Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Anthropomorphism in Sign Languages: A Look at Poetry and Storytelling with a Focus on British Sign Language

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Anthropomorphism in Sign Languages: A Look at Poetry and Storytelling with a Focus on British Sign Language

Article excerpt

In this article we explore the use of anthropomorphism in telling a story or poem in a sign language and ask how it may be achieved. Although we base most of our findings on the works of Paul Scott and Richard Carter, leading British Deaf poets and storytellers, anthropomorphism, from ordinary conversation to poetry and storytelling, is common in many sign languages, so we draw freely on examples from other signers and other sign languages where necessary.

Anthropomorphism is common (even rampant) and occurs when we "ascribe human appearances and feelings to any animate or inanimate being." (Spada 1997, 37). We might anthropomorphize because of an interest in animals, perhaps out of the (misguided) idea that doing so will help us understand animal behavior (Crist 2000), or out of a desire to help the audience gain a greater sense of connectedness to animals and nature in general (Moore 2008), or for some other reason. Alternatively, we might anthropomorphize for the very different reason that our nonhuman objects are really humans in disguise. This enables us to illuminate the experiences of humanity by projecting them onto objects that are free of characteristics that may cloud the analogous human situation (Daston and Mitman 2005) or onto objects that have characteristics we want to explore (such as not using a spoken language). In this article we highlight how the use of anthropomorphism can create and portray Deaf perspectives on the world and, thus, contribute to the cohesion of Deaf communities.

Throughout our discussion our attention is on the linguistic methods used in sign anthropomorphism. We suggest that there is a cline or scale of anthropomorphism in signing, one that depends on a number of factors, including the skills and intention of the signer, the animacy of the entities represented, the form of their bodies, and the form of vocabulary signs referring to those entities. While anthropomorphism attributes human characteristics to nonhuman entities, animism attributes life to nonliving entities (such as a mountain, a train, or a piece of pastry) without necessarily giving them human attributes. However, skilled signers anthropomorphize the whole range of entities (from animate to inanimate) frequendy and with apparent ease by embodying those entities and exploiting both manual and nonmanual articulators.

The Extent of Anthropomorphism

Some philosophers and scientists (especially behavioral scientists) frown upon our (often unconscious) tendency to anthropomorphize (see Kennedy 1992). We humans think, feel, behave, and communicate in our own uniquely human way; we know litde about the mental and emotional lives of the animals around us. We have no evidence that inanimate entities such as trees, mountains, or airplanes have thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and intentions. Furthermore, we know that nothing else - animate or inanimate - spontaneously uses our human languages or any form of communication that would qualify as language under most linguistic definitions (such as having words, a syntax, the ability to refer to objects not present, and so forth; see Anderson 2004). For careful realists, anthropomorphism is actually defined negatively as a "misattribution of properly human traits" (Guthrie 1997, 52). Nevertheless, anthropomorphism for most of us is not a mistake, as we now argue.

We can draw the gross but useful generalization that human languages reflect people's distinctions between things most like themselves and things more and more different from themselves, with animacy being a major factor. We refer to this loosely clustered set of distinctions as the animacy dine. Our human languages reflect the feet that we distinguish classes among the entities of the world, where, if the classes show distinctions in privilege with respect to grammatical phenomena, human beings are invariably in the most privileged class (witness the use of formal address in many European languages and the system of honorifics in Japanese). …

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