Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Visible Verbs Become Spoken

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Visible Verbs Become Spoken

Article excerpt

MANY MOVEMENTS that humans see naturally suggest something other than themselves. This is a legacy from the remotest time. Among animals, movements of prey and predator give each an indication of what may happen next and a basis for choosing their own actions. As species evolved, the movements that could be made and the meanings that could be suggested in those movements became increasingly sophisticated. Among the higher primates, grooming, aggressive and submissive displays, begging, and other movements regulate complex social interactions. Humans also interpret movements; they inform us of what others do, what happens to things, and how a movement maker feels-all this is instinctive.

It has been understood for a long time that movements, gestures, among them, have semantic interpretations. The argument of these chapters, however, is that syntactic interpretation has also evolved and is also eminently natural. Humans not only make, see, and interpret movement but also discern patterns in it: "Something dropped," "That one leapt," "She took it." Movements, when they become the primary symbols of a sign language, have a syntactic structure that can represent these patterns and many others that grow out of them.

Sounds can alarm, warn, beckon, threaten, and so on; but unaided by convention they cannot represent nounlike or verblike concepts. Powerless to make even this fundamental grammatical distinction, sounds have no natural, direct way to show concepts linked in the relationship called predication or syntax. Only convention can link sounds to word meanings and sentence meanings.

Primary sign languages are more natural than spoken languages because a visible sign often carries a visual clue to what it signifies. For example, the meaning of "I give" reverses the meaning of "I was given." Gestured, the two meanings are clearly opposite: the former sign moves outward from the signer; "I was given" moves toward the signer (see fig. 1). But when meanings like these are spoken in English, one must know the language to understand the crucial difference between them. To a speaker or reader of English, the auxiliary was signals the difference. Using was reverses the direction of the giving, but neither the vocal sounds that compose was nor the word itself refer to the direction of transitivity. In a sign language, however, what is given goes from the giver to the receiver; no rule is needed until language becomes spoken.

Humans possess an innate, clear understanding, gained early in life, that movement (of anything) toward self differs from movement away from self. Infants acquire this understanding when activity around them and their own hands and eyes and brain circuitry bring it into their ken. Later, of course, well beyond the period of infancy, they learn that a speaker's use of active or passive voice signals this basic reversal of direction, which was clear to them previously.

Speakers of languages have had to come up with various devices to indicate the difference between giving and being given and the whole active/passive distinction. Signers simply make opposed movements to signal the reversal of direction. This relationship of language sign to meaning is not derived from abstract rules. We first understood the active/passive meaning difference by seeing, moving, feeling-by physical experience cognized. Observing the direction of physical actions is so simple and obvious that one may wonder why spoken languages need complex active-passive rules; but the explanation is obvious: sounds that voices make can no more directly indicate the difference between give and receive than that between to and from.

As the previous chapter revealed, alternate sign languages used by hearing people may differ from primary sign languages used by those who are deaf, but whether the difference is deep-seated or only one of degree has yet to he determined. If an alternate sign language fully represents a spoken language, it is just as correct to say that the spoken language fully represents the sign language. …

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