Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Technologies of Language and the Embodied History of the Deaf

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Technologies of Language and the Embodied History of the Deaf

Article excerpt

Looking back, it appears that linguistics was made possible by the invention of writing. Looking ahead, it appears that a science of language and communication, both optic and acoustic, will be enabled . . . not by refinements in rotational systems, but by increasing sophistication in techniques of recording, analyzing, and manipulating visible and auditory events electronically. (Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox 1995, 13-14)

MUCH OF the history of deaf people has been written by hearing people, and the history that exists is, in large part, a history of the institutions and concepts created by the hearing for and about the deaf.1 This situation is not unlike that of other minorities who have been kept at the margin of history and whose stories have been told by others and from the point of view of others. Anthropologists and oral historians have made efforts to correct this distortion through the recording of the stories of marginalized groups, who traditionally have had access neither to socially prestigious forms of expression nor to their supporting technologies of production, dissemination, and preservation. For groups without writing, efforts have also been made to teach them both a script for writing their language and the computer technologies necessary to physically produce and circulate their own stories.2

Deaf people, however, differ from other groups because of their unique experience of language acquisition. The linguistic situation of people who are deaf has two major consequences that make the telling of their stories a particular challenge for oral historians. The first is the intrinsic linguistic diversity of the deaf community, and the second is the specific nature of the language that, for many deaf people, is their identifying achievement: sign language.

Because of the nature of deafness and the variety of circumstances that may impinge on the language development of a deaf person, many linguistic outcomes are possible, from exclusive use of the spoken language of the hearing community to the exclusive use of the sign language of the deaf community, and-in still far too many cases-to minimal language use, in which no language becomes fully developed. Only a very few of those who are born deaf or who become deaf at an early age achieve fluency in the spoken language of the hearing community and then only with great effort. For deaf people, the only route to full language mastery is through a sign language, but access to sign language is not always guaranteed because the majority of those born deaf are born into hearing families. On the other hand, the possibility of achieving fluency and expressiveness in sign language (but not oral language) is what, above all else, motivates the formation of deaf communities. Within these communities, deaf individuals develop a sense of self as a whole person, different from the image they confront in the hearing world and even within their own families, where they are commonly seen, with rare exceptions, as "deficient" (Padden 1989).3

For the oral historian, it is significant that the sign languages of deaf communities have no historically developed writing system. This means that sign languages represent a form of "primary orality," in the terminology of Ong (1982,16), that is, an orality little influenced by writing. In addition, the fact that the orality of the deaf is signed, and not oral, complicates its relation to a possible written form and presents a challenge to the usual techniques and practices of recording, documentation, and elaboration of oral history.

In this article I intend first to discuss briefly the linguistic situation of the deaf; I then discuss the shift in linguistic ideology from graphocentrism to orocentrism, which forms the scenario in which deaf people are struggling to legitimize their natural form of expression, sign language; I then question both graphocentrism and orocentrism and propose neutral terms and a neutral perspective from which one can view "orality" and "oral history" as the embodiment of language and experience. …

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