Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Language in Mind

Last night I went to a lecture/panel discussion at Ford's Theatre in downtown D.C. Tied to their current show Big River, the panel consisted of cast members and the director of this musical based on Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Produced by the San Francisco-based theatre Deaf West, the show simultaneously incorporates singing and sign language throughout the performance.

One of the actors, who is hearing but has been acting with deaf theatre companies for several years, made some interesting comments on sign language and theatre. Their goal in adapting a musical like Big River for both singing and sign language is to make use of sign language for something more than conversation. In a way, the idea is to create a sense of music and poetry within sign language.

My personal knowledge of sign language is pretty limited. I know how to finger-spell my name and some basics like "Thank you", "Hello", "Yes", and the all important word "Toilet". But from what little I understand sign language is not, as many think, an adaptation of the spoken english language. It is its own language with its own rules, structures, syntax and quirks. So in a sense when an interpreter signs a spoken message (or the opposite), what they are really doing is translating. The director described their use of both languages within performances as something akin to movie subtitles, which is probably not too far off.

All of which has me wondering about language and how it works inside the brain.

I know when I think I generally think in words in the english language. There are the odd occasions when I'm trying to picture something visual or hear something auditory, but generally I think in words that I hear in my head. I wonder if the deaf, particularly the deaf who have never heard speech, think in sign and how exactly it takes shape within their mind. There is a definite deaf culture, and all this must impact how they think, how they approach the world and how they interact with it. What, exactly, could consitute poetry, music, and art within the context of sign language? I'm probably asking questions with obvious answers to some people, but to me they are a little perplexing.

It's something to consider if you ever try to write from the perspective of a character who thinks in another language, be it French, American Sign Language, or another form of communication we have yet to experience.


1 comment:

Anon L said...

You probably guessed I would respond to this, seeing as how I (once) knew sign language and have lived with a deaf roommate, etc.
Anyway, I completely agree about what you said regarding translation. While the sign language I knew was pretty limited to signed English, ASL is a whole different ballgame. Objects end up in different parts of sentences, articles and some verbs (is, be) are pretty much thrown out the window, there is not a past or future tense (you just say that this happened before or will happen with a single sign), modifiers (not sure that's the right word) replace nouns after the first use, so on and so forth. It's like that Star Trek (the one with Patrick Stewart) episode where he ends up on a planet with a person who can only speak in metaphors. Their translation devices allow them to translate only the actual words but not the overall meaning or context. I think this is akin to the relationship between English and ASL. A theatrical and intimate language -you have to be pretty much face to face with whomever you're speaking with.

Not being deaf or hard of hearing (hoh) though, I certainly cannot speak for the thoughts of someone who is, though I can say that even not being deaf, I tend to think in pictures and moving scenes instead of written words. Probably why I paint. I don't think art is any different in the deaf community than in the hearing. Nor probably poetry. Painting images with words transcends both. We both read and write the same English. Music, however, is different. I know many deaf people who enjoy music. If they can hear a little (and by little, I don't mean that the world is just softer sounding, but then again, I'm not sure what I mean, since I can't hear it), anyway, if they can hear a little, my deaf friends seem to prefer instrumental music. Words are too difficult and just get in the way. Others feel the vibrations of loud music, drum n'bass kind of stuff; a deaf party is rarely a quiet party! They're not worried about blowing out their ear drums, so they crank it up to feel the music. I've also seen deaf performers sign sing (not sure that's an actual phrase) but presenting signs in an even more lyrical fashion, accompanied by a speaking translator for the rest of us. There's an appreciation for rhythm and tempo. I've seen deaf dancers. There is something beautiful in the way the body moves, not just in the body moving with music.

Deaf culture is fascinating. Thank you for not treating the subject in the context of a disability or a hindrance but instead, as what it is - something different from what most of us understand.