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.